Steven Moffat: The Full Transcript

Here’s the full transcript of Emer Sugrue’s interview with the brilliant Steven Moffat. Warning: spoilers ahead.


You started out writing for kids, and now you’re writing kids and adult shows. Is it a big difference writing for the two age groups?

In all honesty, no, I’ve never even thought about it, I really really don’t, I don’t have to think about it which possibly says something about my immaturity. I don’t know, Sherlock is really loved by kids as well actually, I’m not absolutely certain that the doctor who audience and the Sherlock audience are as different as people might like to imagine. I was a little bit alarmed when the moved back the last episode to nine o’clock because that’s slightly too late for kids to watch it, and while we don’t make it for, it obviously more about an adult, more adult than Doctor Who, at the same time I’m always careful not to include anything, you know, you can push the envelope a bit but you don’t make it unwatchable by kids, there’s nothing my kids wouldn’t watch in it.

At the same time, it’s quite different from something like Coupling which is very much in the adult camp, I would say.

It is very much in the adult camp but compared to my children’s shows, so much more immature! The characters in Press Gang, my kids show years ago, were far more grown up than the ones in Coupling. That’s not to criticise Coupling, I love Coupling, you’ve got more licence I suppose when you’re talking to adults, but if I had my time again I think I would have made Coupling more mainstream, because there’s a lot of very funny shows in there that kids cant watch. ‘The Man with Two Legs’ was a very funny show, my son would love it I’m sure, but its just a bit too naughty. But with just a little bit more inventiveness and a little bit of cover phrasing you could make that show for a mainstream audience as opposed to a niche audience. What is the point of addressing a smaller section of the audience, and god knows kids love telly, so actually stopping them watching is stupid.

It seems more and more cartoons and films try to have things adults would like.

Oh absolutely, I think it’s the new growth area, you have to realise that the remote control probably isn’t controlled by the adult male in the household, it’s probably controlled by the woman or the children, and so, and god knows Sherlock is, probably the first time that the Sherlock Holmes demographic has been female skewed but it’s remarkable. I mean, generally speaking it hasn’t been something that appealed to women greatly, Sherlock Holmes, but it does seem to be now.

Possibly Benedict Cumberbatch is influential there…

Yeah but he’s not the first handsome man to play Sherlock Holmes oddly enough. He could be one of the younger ones. It’s odd. It wasn’t like, in all fairness, anyone was salivating over Benedict before he was Sherlock Holmes, its a meeting of part and actor I think that makes geeky sexy.

And people always seem to be in love with whoever plays Doctor Who no matter who they are, what age they are, what they look like.

That’s right, how could you not be in love with that lovely man? The Doctor might be weird looking but they’re generally also quite good looking.

Do you find there’s a difference in writing comedy to drama?

I don’t think there is really. I don’t think there’s any excuse really unless you’re making people cry then you should be making them laugh. I wrote comedy before I officially wrote comedy because press gang was always funny. I honestly don’t change the approach very much at all, the difference is when you’re doing a sitcom is you’re actually thinking ‘they’ve got to be laughing on this page and this page and this page’.

You’re more counting the punchlines

Yeah, but you know I, this year because I made the other two much darker than scandal ‘Scandal’ [in Belgravia]; there are a lot of laughs in ‘Scandal’, the first half an hour particularly is very funny. Not as funny as a comedy, it practically is a comedy after the first , well probably the first half I think is funny, before it darkens slightly.

Part of the reason I think Doctor Who and Sherlock are so funny is because it seems like a serious programme and then the jokes come. So it’s not like you sit down thinking ‘right, I expect this many laughs’, there’s a back and forth, there’s tensions and then there’s a joke

Yeah that does help, I think comedy sits better in a drama, the way its sits in life, really, but then successful comedies come often from dramatic elements. The line can be blurred because comedy is an artificial distinction unless you’re actually talking about a comedian, if you’re talking about narrative comedy then it is just story telling.

Do you find it easier when the pressure is off to be funny?

I just write whatever I want to write, I mean, comedy is very very hard indeed but then I think I’m quite good at it! I’m always joking, I think it’s probably my default.

Do you draw on personal experiences at all when writing Doctor Who or Sherlock?

There’s not very much personal experience involved in Sherlock! The only aspect of my personal experience is I’ve always been a huge Sherlock Holmes fan and a huge Doctor Who fan so it feels like these are artefacts from my own past. Which I’m now bizarrely enough taking control of, hurrah. Not a lot of personal experience in that.

When writing, where do you start? Do you start with the characters or storyline?

Well, both. It’s very different for each show. With Doctor Who I’m thinking of how I can get people to be scared I suppose: what’s the monster this week, what’s the adventure, what’s the fastest way we can start the story, how soon can I get Matt Smith running is probably the focus there. With Sherlock it’s different because Mark [Gatiss] and I sit around wondering which one are we going to do this year, which bits of the original haven’t been touched. There’s quite a lot of Sherlock Holmes that hasn’t been touched. We’ve had very considerable success just by mining the bits people don’t usually do, and pointing out the bits… I mean we got such credit for having the first time we see Benedict as Sherlock Holmes he’s flogging a corpse, and people said how amazing and clever we were but the truth is the first time Sherlock Holmes is mentioned in the first Sherlock Holmes story that’s exactly what he’s doing. We just nicked it from the original.

With a such a frame to hang it on, is it easier to start Sherlock than other things?

It’s never easy to start, it just never is. And they’re both quite intensively, um… plotted I suppose, because things have to happen in them, you don’t really have a lot of chat, you have to get on with it. At the same time people are in love with that relationship between Holmes and Watson so you need that. It’s very enjoyable, I love both these shows but they’re tough to do.

With each episode at 90 minutes, the length of a film, it must be very hard to balance all the different elements

I quite like the longer length, I’m not absolutely sure the longer length is harder to do. I think the longer length in some ways is a blessing because, I mean, I think I spend most of my life trying to get Doctor Who episodes down to 45 minutes and that can be really really tough. Whereas, you know, when I was doing ‘Scandal’ this year it was deliberately set over a year so you got a big chunk of their lives. Things like the Christmas Day scene would never make it into a normal length episode because its just a bit of indulgence, no doubt could be called self indulgent! But the 90 minutes allows you that degree of character, in effect. And character is very important in that show.

After Jekyll and Sherlock, what’s your next Victorian adaptation?

Its honestly not the plan, I never intended to do this. Jekyll was actually someone else’s idea that I took on, Jeffrey Taylor’s, but honestly I…generally speaking I’ve always turned down adaptations but I suppose its sort of cumulative isn’t it? Doctor Who and Sherlock were the two big ones for me, and I did love Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as a kid but I doubt there’s another one. The next thing I do will be original. God knows when that will be, the amount of work I’ve got to do but you know, it’ll be something else.

Was it difficult getting the complexities of the different characters from the original books? A lot of adaptations turn Watson into a fat bumbling idiot, completely different to his personality in the books

I have to say, that’s Nigel Bruce and I have to say that fat bumbling idiot he was but by god he was a brilliant fat bumbling idiot! He was so funny.

With Watson the problem is when you remove the narrator function from him. Because he’s really just the ideal audience for Sherlock Homes in the book, you actually have to do something more with him. Our Dr Watson is very sardonic and sarky and funny, but if you actually look at the original Dr Watson he isn’t; he’s endless credulous, constantly amazed, not quite Nigel Bruce but nonetheless has an epic ability to be wrong about everything.

He’s not as thick as he can sometimes be presented but he is comically astonished by Sherlock Holmes’ deductions for the entire thirty years of their friendship, you think at a certain point he might know Sherlock Holmes has probably got this one. Not saying ‘You cant possibly know that Holmes!’, not three decades in!

We’ve got an actor like Martin Freeman and I think the thing that’s important for Dr Watson is that he’s definitely hugely competent; he’s not any kind of genius but he’s a very competent military man, and a good doctor with a stout heart and the best friend you could want and the first man a genius would trust which is a huge complement; a genius chooses him. A genius who understands everything about everybody chooses John to be the man he trusts. So that’s about as big a complement as you can get really.

Sherlock makes great use of modern technology, how hard was that to write in when adapting the show?

Well to be honest, it’s not very hard. We just decided we were going to update him properly, he’d be a modern man because he’s a modern man in the Victorian version, he’s always using newfangled things like telegrams. He’s someone who appreciates and enjoys technology, he’s a bit of a science boffin, he’s a geek, he would do all those things. I just think it’s fun, I don’t think all the fantastic tech we’ve got limits story telling, I think you can use it in all sorts of ways.

I suppose you see the lack of technology more in horror, making excuses for why the characters don’t just call the police.

The eternal problem is ‘Why don’t they just phone the police?’, that’s going to haunt every drama because the explanation will always be dull. But I’m sure we’ll fall foul of that some day.

I can’t imagine Sherlock Holmes calling the police

He wouldn’t, just on a point of principle! At the same time I cant help thinking that we’ll probably use that as the big twist, why didn’t he just call the police, he also has no intention of dying so…

Who is the lonelier character, the Doctor or Sherlock?

I think the Doctor, because the Doctor actually does crave company, I don’t think Sherlock really does. I think people get under his skin and I think possibly without him even realising so John and Mrs Hudson definitely, he’s very fond of her, and he’s actually terribly fond of Lestrade. He doesn’t know it yet but he is. I think he got to him in a way he hadn’t been got to before. It just sort of happened. And it happened in the stories too.

He wants to be a calculating machine but he really isn’t. He really absolutely properly isn’t. He’s a quite a moody difficult emotional man is the truth, even in the original, and its really fascinating to read the real Doyle and you realise if he thinks a man has wronged a women he’s dragging a riding crop off the wall to beat him up ’cause he’s so angry. He’s actually not at all cold and aloof, he just wants to be and presents that way, but he isn’t, he isn’t at all. But he would like to be.

Is there anything linking the two show, for instance both the Doctor and Sherlock Holmes faking their own deaths?

Well I hadn’t really thought I’d done that because it all happened the other way round but we always knew we were going to have to do ‘Reichenbach [Fall]‘, and yes indeed I did do the doctor faking his death though by slightly more elaborate means! The problem is I’m in charge of both shows and the what I cant ever do is not do something in one show because I did it in the other. Ninety-nine per cent of the audience haven’t a clue who I am or know that I work on both of them so you just ignore things like that. They are two swashbuckling geniuses, there’s always going to be doing similar things

I suppose if you couldn’t ever use something that had been in Doctor Who, after fifty years that would be pretty limiting.

Absolutely, god yeah. And you know in the very early days of Doctor Who they actually used Sherlock Holmes as a base when working out the character. I think it was Sydney Newman who said ‘make the old guy more like Sherlock Holmes’. There is a sort of link between the two. The world is very different, Sherlock is more or less inserted into the real world and is the exceptional inhabitant of it whereas the Doctor is bizarre but is inserted into an even more bizarre world.

Was it strange to write Doctor Who, having been a fan as a child?

It was but that is becoming a long time ago, because I wrote for Russell [T. Davies]‘s first season. It’s starting to get hard to remember that Doctor Who used to be show I wasn’t involved with as opposed to a couple of words I’m having stapled into the middle of my name. Its really hard to remember I just used to be in the audience, and will be again some day. That’s become odd. But yes, it was. But very exciting, very very exciting.

Back in 2004, when we were approaching that first series and various groups were writing for Russell it felt like, it felt sort of magical and strange that Doctor Who was coming back, it felt impossible that we were actually doing it and could go to the set and see the police box. It hadn’t been on for 15 years, it was so incredibly exciting! And I remember sitting down for the first time and thinking ‘bloody hell, I’m actually writing doctor who’. That never completely wears off to be honest, I’m always very excited about writing Doctor Who but its now harder for me to recapture the feeling of it being entirely a novelty.

How do you come up with the monsters? Of all the different episodes of Doctor Who it seems to always be yours that have the most terrifying monsters

Gareth Roberts, one of my fellow writers on Doctor Who had a theory that you write the Doctor Who you remember – he tended to remember the funny ones, so he writes funny Doctor Who and I remember just being terrified of it so I tend to write the scary Doctor Who. Neither memory is more accurate, its all kind of nonsense but I do like the fact, the sort of weird sense of transgression of it being slightly wrong to have a television show whose mission statement is to petrify kids. Try and pitch that and get it made today! ‘We are going to scare the crap out of very young children.’

Do you think you have a thing for not killing characters, or bringing characters back?

I’m not very good at killing people. I don’t like it! I didn’t even know that about myself until Russell pointed out that I’d written six episodes of Doctor Who for him and I hadn’t killed anybody. Literally hadn’t killed anybody. No one dies in ‘The Empty Child’, no one dies in ‘Girl in the Fireplace’ except the person who was dead already. I have killed a few but… I haven’t killed any main characters, I don’t think the doctors companions should die, I think that spoils the fairytale a bit. But that doesn’t mean that I wont of course!

How much are series and story arcs planned out in advance?

We’ve got the shape for Sherlock very clearly because its been done before to say the least, and the arc in this particular series that’s just gone has been very carefully plotted in advance, very carefully. In part because I had to write it in reverse order because we did ‘Scandal’ last. So you know, the whole ending, how we were going to do it, I mean that was the first thing we were talking about: how did he pull it off, and the idea of Moriarty killing himself and all that stuff, that’s been in place for a very very long time.

But other stuff, Doctor Who had a big arc this year which is unusual for it and we’re going to play with that a little bit, I’m pulling back from that slightly just because, for variety more than anything else, it tends to be a bit ‘Movie of the Week’, Doctor Who.

So will the episodes in the next series be a bit more contained?

Yes but there’ll always be and always are things that run through it, but I suppose it will be slightly less big than it was last year. Last year was the most we’ll ever do, I think. It got a lot of attention and caused a lot of controversy, and it got a much bigger American audience because it kind of gave them a reason to keep watching. But I think we have to keep changing doctor who or else it feels rather stale.

Is it true that the current companions, Amy and Rory, are leaving the series?

That’s right, yeah.

Are they just going to be gone when the next series opens or…?

No no no, I’m writing that right now, the big Rory and Amy heartbreaking finale, they’ll be gone forever, I’m doing that right now.

How heartbreaking?

It will be quite heartbreaking, definitely… I think you’ll be in trouble watching it.

Aw, why can’t there ever be a happy exiting story?

Heartbreaking doesn’t mean unhappy. Wait and see. I mean, it’s parting. It’s parting from someone and that’s always very hard.

When does the new series start?

I don’t know, they’re being incredibly evasive so I actually don’t know so autumn-ish… With Doctor Who the scheduling can change at the last minute, I didn’t even know when Sherlock was until seven days before it went out. We just had our first official day commencing pre-production on Doctor Who so knowing when its actually going to be shown is a little bit optimistic! But we’ll definitely show it, and I’m pretty sure it will be the autumn. Pretty certain.

  • http://aaeblog.com Roderick T. Long

    Should “Sydney Hughes” be Sydney Newman?

  • 00

    Great interview. Good questions and chat. Open and honest. He’s such a gifted writer and its good to know a bit whats behind it. Cheers

  • Emer Sugrue, Opinion Editor

    @Roderick – You’re right, it should be Sydney Newman. I’ll correct that, thanks for spotting it!

  • Maddy

    Great article, thanks! Cannot wait for more DW :)

  • Amber Michelle

    Just an overall great man with both exciting and witty ideas, he’s practically a gift to the writing community! Brilliant.

  • Justine Lark

    The reason people are drooling over Benedict as Sherlock when they weren’t before is the dark hair! He’s much more alluring with the dye job than with his own coloring.

  • 919

    Great interview, very enjoyable. Could probably have used some editing when it comes to basic grammar for the sake of readibility.

  • Pat Dalton

    Hello,
    I hate to hear Amy’s story line will be beding. Will we be getting a new doctor too? Why does the show replace doctors and companions so often? I still miss Billie Pipper. I wish both the doctor and his friends stayed artound longer.
    Thanks,
    Pat

  • Suzanne Arena

    I love both shows. I still miss David Tenant. He did “As Time Goes By” too, right?

    Great interview.