Doctor Who, The Adventures of Tintin and Sherlock mastermind Steven Moffat talks to Emer Sugrue about writing, jokes, and terrifying children.
We are in the golden age of the geek. After decades of being the butt of high school movie jokes – laughing at their interest in games and lack of interest in matching attire – suddenly the geek is king. Games and technology have gone mainstream, and giant glasses and Pokémon references are not the preserve of the socially awkward, but rather the socially pretentious. Our TV heroes have also gone the way of the geek; the tough, gruff “solve the problem with punching” protagonists have made way for the TV genius: someone who unravels the riddle and saves the world with intellectual might. Two of the highest rated shows in the UK feature such geek idols, and the geek behind the geeks is writer Steven Moffat, head writer of Doctor Who and co-creator of Sherlock, the recent TV adaptation of the Arthur Conan Doyle series.
Doctor Who, for the uninitiated, is a show featuring an “eleven-hundred-and-three-year-old” alien who travels through space and time in a police box (called the TARDIS – Time and Relative Dimension in Space), fighting monsters and finding friends to take along with him, only ninety per cent of which have been very attractive women. Having run from 1963 to 1989, the show had been on a seemingly permanent hiatus until a reboot headed by Russell T. Davis aired in 2005. A fan since childhood, Moffat jumped at the chance to write his childhood hero. “Back in 2004, when we were approaching that first series … 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 fifteen 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 it’s now harder for me to recapture the feeling of it being entirely a novelty.
“It’s hard to remember Doctor Who as a show I wasn’t involved with, as opposed to a couple of words I’m having stapled into the middle of my name. It’s really hard to remember I just used to be watching, and will be again someday. That’s become odd. But very exciting, very, very exciting.”
One cliché of Doctor Who, and both a point of ridicule by non-fans and fond nostalgia by those who watched as children, is the cheesy special effects and alien antagonists. The new series has a more impressive budget and use of CGI than the original, but the writers are keen to stick to their memory of the show. Unlike most British series, which have few episodes and a single writer, each episode of the Doctor Who has a different writer, with Moffat writing key episodes and overseeing the story lines. This can lead to very different tones, from humorous to chilling. “Gareth Roberts, one of my fellow writers on Doctor Who, had a theory that you write the Doctor Who you remember.” Moffat explains. “He tended to remember the funny ones, so he writes funny Doctor Who, and I remember just being terrified over it, so I tend to write the scary Doctor Who. Neither memory is more accurate, it’s all kind of nonsense, but I do like 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 pitching that and getting it made today!
“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 [the actor behind the current Doctor] running is probably the focus there.”
“Sherlock is different, because Mark [Gatiss, co-creator of Sherlock] and I sit around wondering which one are we going to do this year, which bits of the original haven’t been touched, and there’s quite a lot of Sherlock Holmes that hasn’t been touched. We’ve had considerable success just by mining the bits people don’t usually do … I mean, we got such credit for having the first time we see 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.”
Though he started his writing career making children’s television shows with Press Gang, a series based around a school newspaper, Steven Moffat has plenty of experience writing things aimed more at the adult market. He followed up the success of Press Gang with Joking Apart and Coupling, sitcoms about divorce, relationships and sex. However, he doesn’t feel there to be much difference in writing for different age groups. “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 think 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 alarmed when they 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 them, it’s obviously 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.”
Coupling is an exception to this rule. Featuring the classic sitcom lineup of three guys, three girls and a heap of misunderstandings, it is very much of the bawdy side of the genre. “The kids in Press Gang, my show years ago, were far more grown up than the ones in Coupling. It is very much in the adult camp, but compared to my children’s shows, so much more immature.
“I love Coupling, but 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 episodes that kids can’t watch. ‘The Man with Two Legs’ was a very funny episode, my son would love it, I’m sure, but it’s just a bit too naughty. 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”
The lines are also often blurred between comedy and drama, a feature of Moffat’s writing being the move between tense, emotional drama and tension-breaking jokes several times within an episode. “I honestly don’t change the approach very much at all; the difference is, when you’re doing a sitcom, you’re actually thinking ‘they’ve got to be laughing on this page and this page and this page’. 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.”
The dramatic elements can also increase the humour. Comedy often comes from the subversion of expectation and the breaking of tension, allowing the two sides to play off against each other. “Comedy sits better in a drama, the way its sits in life really, but then successful comedies can come 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.”
Steven Moffat’s latest hit has been Sherlock, an adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels, whose second series recently aired to great acclaim. Sherlock sets itself apart from most adaptations with its setting in modern-day London. The show fully incorporates modern attitudes and technology, which Moffat feels is a natural progression for the original character of Holmes. “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 the storytelling, I think you can use it in all sorts of ways.”
Many people have commented on the similarities between the characters of the Doctor and Sherlock, down to their respective series finales, in which both characters faked their deaths. “We always knew we were going to have to do Reichenbach, and yes, indeed, I did have the Doctor faking his own death – though by slightly more elaborate means! The problem is, I’m in charge of both shows, and what I can’t 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; they’re always going to be doing similar things.”
So what next for the man with the golden pen? Following the climatic end of ‘The Reichenbach Fall’, the final episode of the latest series of Sherlock, it was revealed to much delight that a third series has been commissioned. There is also a seventh series of Doctor Who currently in production, so it seems there will be no rest for Moffat in the near future. “We just had our official day commencing pre-production on Doctor Who, so as for knowing when it’s 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.”
Details of the upcoming series are vague, but it seems that the Doctor’s companions of the last two series, Amy Pond and Rory Williams, played by Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill, will be leaving the show. “I’m writing that right now, the big Rory and Amy heartbreaking finale. It will be quite heartbreaking” Moffat teases, “I think you’ll be in trouble watching it.”