At this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, Steven Moffat took part in an audience question-and-answer session following an advance screening of The Magician’s Apprentice, the first episode of Doctor Who series nine. This is the spoiler-free compilation of Moffat’s answers from the session introduced by Andrew Collins and featuring several audience questions.
Was this the first public screening of The Magician’s Apprentice?
Steven Moffat: Yeah, we saw it in the dub and I saw it with the listings magazines a few days ago, but this has been the most exciting version because it’s the first time we’ve watched it with fans. That’s the cool one. [However] we’re still thick in it. We’re still making episode 12; we’re about to make the Christmas special; we haven’t stopped. We had one notion to show episode two as well tonight, but it’s not quite finished…
Well, it’s sort of lovely now. The friendship, which we see happening in the last Christmas special, has become… well, there was a stand-off with Clara as a slight control freak whose best friend turned into somebody else entirely. The Doctor [is] trying to pretend he’s an aloof alien who’s not really interested in human beings and doing it very badly. They’re not bothering with that, they’re just the very, very best possible friends. And in a non-sexual, non-creepy way, the Doctor has a tremendous crush on Clara. He just thinks that she’s the best thing ever, so all of that is to the fore now. I suppose the way he was before, he was in denial about that. We got a lot of fun out of that for a whole series, but we’re not doing that anymore.
Do you prefer writing episodes that are set in a historical period, in space, or in the distant future?
I quite like setting them in the present day, in the future or on another planet because you don’t have to do any research… Nonetheless I do force myself to do it, because I’m always right on science. Science is totally my thing. We never get that wrong. I remember, I had never done a lick of research in my entire life until I got the gig of writing Doctor Who. I got the story given to me by Russell T [Davies]: ‘Second World War’, and I thought, ‘I’m going to have to look stuff up! I don’t know this. Is there a film? Is there a Ladybird book?’ Then I got Madame de Pompadour… I actually slightly prefer the future ones. [However] I think visually, when we put them in the present day, when we put them in the past… it tends to look better. Big, clanky monsters in Victorian times or Roman times or whatever: it looks great. Also, we’ve got a very realistic Earth set, better than anything else we’ve got, so we like to use it. It’s several million years in the making and we want to get the value out of it.
His love, we can compete on that, but let it be understood that in a face-off, in a head-to-head, he is nowhere close [on knowledge]… You know that conversation about Mondasian Cybermen? I keep saying, ‘Look, the ones with the metal faces were also from Mondas!’ So, you now know what an artistic conversation between the showrunner and the actor is like. I’m ahead with knowledge. He, at a certain point because he thought it would be great to go and some kind of a life, used to dash around Glasgow being handsome and dating women. I thought, ‘Pfft… to hell with that! I’m going to collect Doctor Who trading cards and not make eye contact with anybody.’
Which of your own episodes are you most proud of…?
Well, that’s a good question to ask me in ten years, because I’m still in the job. There is a moment in the making of every single Doctor Who episode where I think ‘This is going to be the best thing ever made’… and another moment not distant from [the first] where I think ‘This is going to be an unutterable disaster, I’m going to have to fake my own death’.
I was hugely proud of Vincent and the Doctor. I thought that was an amazing episode, and a huge and difficult subject beautifully handled by Richard Curtis in an early evening slot. I was very proud of The Eleventh Hour because that was seen as a difficult task.
I have to say that it was the single most miserable professional engagement I’ve ever had, but The Day Of The Doctor… that worked, people did like that, that was good. It was hell to do, but I’m proud of that.
The thing you’re proud of on Doctor Who is that you keep getting the shows out. I think there’s a sense in which people take what we do a little bit for granted, that we just make those all the time. Look at the number of different locations, sets, effects, characters you get… even if you hated Doctor Who, a legitimate thing to say would be ‘How the hell do they do all that in that amount of time?’ So, I think the main thing I’ll be proud of ten years in the future, when I’m just [a brain] in a jar, would be that we kept making them, we make a new one every two weeks. It’s really hard… maybe The Day of the Doctor because it was really, stupidly difficult.
There’s evidence that people might occasionally be watching by other means, but we don’t know how many people have seen the show; nobody knows those statistics. There’s a thing called the Internet, it’s really going to catch on. I have no idea about that kind of thing… It is an epically successful show. The fact that we’ve had the 50th anniversary quite recently obscures the fact that the new show is quite old. It’s ten years old. We put these tickets [for the preview screening] on sale and they sell out in no time at all. It’s still huge, every newspaper still writes about it. [Generally] shows don’t do that after ten years. I mean, they gently decline. Doctor Who has gently declined to gently decline…
Are there any plans to mark the tenth anniversary of the new show?
If you had a tenth anniversary so close after the 50th people would just walk away confusedly shaking their heads. You just have to put all that stuff back away in the cupboard. You can’t keep bringing it out because you have to keep it special. We can’t, even on Doctor Who, irritate the entire viewing public with the fact the show is 50 years old and then a couple of years later say, ‘And now it’s the tenth!’
I suppose I can say this now that it’s over and was a big success: I found the 50th from many different points of view alarming. It was very difficult to do, but I also keep saying ‘Is it really right that you’re making a television show, an actual television show about how great you are?’ That’s wrong, you shouldn’t really be doing that. I thought that if I was watching an episode of Breaking Bad and it said, ‘This week’s episode is going to be all about the fact it’s the 100th episode’, I would think, ‘I don’t really want to watch that, I just want to see him make meth…’
No, we’re not going to keep hitting the anniversaries. The truth is, we had a party with loads of Doctors together [The Day of the Doctor]. They all appeared and saved Gallifrey… Otherwise, it’s just phoning David [Tennant] up and saying, ‘Bring the suit with you’. Once you realise that’s all we’re doing, the magic goes away, so we can’t. It’s about powering forward. It’s about making sure we get to the 100th [anniversary]. I have already informed the BBC that I won’t be writing it!
This season appears to be made up of several two-parters…
We did it once before with The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon. It worked very well, I have to say, but we didn’t do it again. I don’t quite know why we didn’t… we just didn’t!
We wanted to do more two-parters this year and it does let you unfold a story in a slightly different way. It allows you to go into more detail in the story, to take your time a bit. Although it’s a blessing and a curse because it allows you to make a movie, but you’re also required to make a movie. We’re being a bit cryptic about that [two-parters]. I mean, there’s two-parters, there’s linked stories, there are ones that will surprise you in either direction…
There’s been much talk at the Television Festival about changes in television and especially on the future of the BBC…
Let’s be clear, there is only one broadcaster that would come up with and transmit Doctor Who: ‘What’s the spaceship going to look like?’ ‘You’re going to love this…’ Pitch that at NBC! ‘Is he going to be a young dashing hero?’ ‘Sometimes!’ Yes, it is a wonderful example [of the BBC], as is Bake Off, as is everything David Attenborough has ever done, as all those things. There is no other broadcaster so madly varied and so genuinely mad. Can you imagine what the world would be like without all of that insane variety? What will be big next? Baking! And you can’t even taste the cakes.
I think a very small number of people think the BBC is a bad idea and a huge number of people think the BBC is a wonderful idea, but sadly the small number of people are all in government…
With Netflix and Amazon delivering entire seasons in one go for binge watching, do you ever think you’ll do that with Doctor Who?
These [technological changes] happen and you go with them, but I can make one accurate prediction about the way television will go: it will not go the way people think it will go.
I’ve been coming to the Edinburgh Television Festival for many years. First of all, it’s always the ‘end of television’. I remember the first time I came to Edinburgh was in 1989, and I’d just got into television, [and they were] saying ‘Well, it’s all just wrapped up’. I slowly realised that they say that every year!
Heaven knows how it will change. Netflix is delivering exactly the kind of thing we already have, but by very slightly different means. So, as revolutions go, it’s not absolutely gobsmacking. Who knows how we’ll end up? I still feel Doctor Who is more of a once-a-week thing. I think Doctor Who probably belongs once a week: it’s big, it’s loud and it’s mad…
Brian J. Robb
Thanks to the Edinburgh International Television Festival, Steven Moffat and the audience at the Filmhouse in Edinburgh.