There are few constants in Doctor Who besides the fans, the blue box, and that thirst for exploration and heroism, but Steven Moffat just about qualifies. A writer during Russell T Davies’ tenure as showrunner and the lead producer and head writer of the show since 2010, it would be hard to argue that Moffat (who is set to exit alongside star Peter Capaldi and longtime producer Brian Minchin after this season) hasn’t left his mark on the show, but in our interview with he and Minchin, he does exactly that. Or, more accurately, he takes issue with the notion that one can (or should try to) leave their mark on something like Doctor Who.
Beyond matters dealing with their behind-the-scenes legacy, Moffat and Minchin also discuss the return of the ’60s Cybermen, the arrival of the Doctor’s new companion (and the excitement of writing for a new character), whether it’s easier for a new showrunner to start with a new Doctor, and what Moffat wants, as a fan, from incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall’s looming pick for the Doctor.
How did the idea of bringing back the ’60s style Cybermen come about?
Moffat: I always liked those ones. And I never took it that seriously, but he [Minchin] kept saying that he thought they were the best ones and I preferred the metal-faced ones. But I did have a look at it and I thought there was something we could do that would make them look spooky and interesting, and there was a story coming up in which they fit. So that’s how it came about. I mean, obviously, I think if we tried this 10 years ago people would’ve laughed at it, but there’s something sort of retro and right about them now that makes it work.
Are there any other favorites that are coming back this season that people haven’t seen in a long, long time?
Moffat: Well, I mean obviously there are things I’m not going to tell you and things I can’t remember, but we have Ice Warriors. We have Ice Warriors. You haven’t seen them for a couple years.
What about familiar faces? Any friends of the Doctor? Anything like that to look forward to this season? [Note: This conversation took place before news about John Simm’s return broke.]
I can’t get you to say anyone specific, right?
Minchin: This is really the story of Bill (Pearl Mackie) and the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Nardole (Matt Lucas). The series is gonna be set around the new companion, around the Doctor’s relationships so it’s about their adventures and what they do. Obviously, there will be other bits as well, but the main thing is gonna be Bill and she’s fantastic.
Steven, is it your experience that writing for a brand new companion, especially in those first few episodes, is that more fun for you?
Moffat: It’s always lovely to get a new character, a fresh take on the show. Putting a new voice in the show changes the way you write it. Changes the way the Doctor behaves and allows you to start again. One of the endless problems of a show that has been around for an epically long time — you know 10 years or 50 odd years depending on how you count it — is how to make it new again? Well, you can make the story begin again for someone new and different.
So yeah. That’s exciting. That’s exciting. But you’ve got to understand, we’ve been working on this character and this era of Doctor Who for a long time. It no longer… It’s new to you. It no longer feels new to us. But I think you’re gonna love her. She brings a very fresh and very different energy to a relationship with the Doctor, different from the one we’re used to. So it’s exciting in that sense and it’s always exciting to work with a genuine new talent. Pearl Mackie, I think, is gonna blow your socks off.
Obviously, you made the decision to step away from the show after this season. How long has that been in the works? Has the story been working towards that? Is this season about you trying to tie up loose ends?
Moffat: There isn’t anything about tying up loose ends. I don’t have to do something before I finish. We’re just here to write Doctor Who. The fact that I’m leaving and Brian’s leaving within the fictional world of Doctor Who means absolutely nothing at all. The fact that Peter Capaldi’s leaving is very important, because that’s a visible part of the universe. I assure you, the other 100% of the audience don’t even know we exist and would be thoroughly bored if they did.
(Laughs) I don’t think you give yourself enough credit.
Moffat: No. No. I promise you. I promise you. I can prove it. If I have to prove how unimpressive I am… It’s not a great thing to go through. (Laughs)
If there’s a YouTube interview with Peter Capaldi it will get millions of hits. If there’s a YouTube interview with Steven Moffat, without anyone famous even loitering in the background, we could be looking at six or seven. And that’s not a joke. Because nobody knows who I am. I’m perfectly happy if they don’t know who I am. They don’t know who Brian is. I don’t know who Brian is. We sometimes forget each other. Really, it’s the truth of it.
In terms of how long it’s been, it’s about two years since I started making my way to the door. It takes a long while. It takes a long while to leave a show like this.
Now did you have a hint that Peter was going to time his exit with your exit as well? Or did that come as a surprise to you?
Moffat: We just talked to him about it. We told him and then he went off to think about it. What I said to him was “Take as long as you like because I can always write your final battle in with relative ease later in the process. That’s fine,” because I wanted him to have as long as he wanted and then he took us both out to dinner and completed our three-way suicide pact. Well, not really. That would have been an unpleasant dinner.
I think he probably had the number of in his mind. Most Doctors do. Most Doctors do about three years and go, so I think he probably had that in his mind, but you’d have to ask him how he came to that decision. It’s a difficult show to leave.
I imagine that it might be easier for a new showrunner to have a new Doctor and just have a new set of tools to play with.
Minchin: I’m not sure that’s true, you know.
Moffat: No, it’s not particularly true.
No? Any lessons you learned from watching how Russell T Davies ended his run on the show and any advice for Chris Chibnall as he starts with a new Doctor?
Moffat: In terms of advice, I mean certainly Chris is a very experienced showrunner. He doesn’t need advice from me on how to run the show. When I took it over, I came in with a new Doctor because I was forced to. That was it. There wasn’t any… I tried to get David (Tennant) to stay on and I got very close to succeeding but, again, that number three. He decided three years was enough and he decided to leave. I made a real attempt.
There’s nothing, as I keep saying… change of showrunner, change of execs, change of attitude doesn’t actually affect the fictional world of the show. We are behind the scenes for a reason. We are incredibly ugly and no one wants to see us. So it’s better if quite a lot of scenery is between our faces and an impressionable public.
(Laughs) Steven, when you took over the show, how did you want to put your mark on it and do you think you succeeded?
Moffat: I have never, ever had the slightest interest and never will have the slightest interest in putting my mark on Doctor Who. I just wanted to make Doctor Who and that’s the honest truth.
It’s not about putting your mark on anything. Why would anyone care about that? You’ve got enough to think about just to make what you hope were good and exciting episodes. I just wanted to make good and exciting episodes. I’m not trying to sign my name over the top of it. I keep saying no one cares about me. So it’s just about the excitement of new monsters and new adventures, new ideas. Other people’s ideas. Other people’s monsters. Other people’s input.
It’s not, God knows, just me. There are loads of people who are brilliant. So it is not… it is never one person’s signature and nobody cares. You should never think about, when you’re writing something, putting your mark on it. I mean that sounds possessive and egotistical and those two impulses will get you nowhere when you are writing.
I understand where you’re coming from but still… Maybe “put your mark on it” is too strong of a term, but there’s definitely… you can’t be too precious about what the show has been for the entirety of its run. You have to kind of do it in your own way, to a degree. You have to respect the canon, I imagine, but also try to move the show forward. So I guess that’s more my question, how did you want to move the show forward?
Minchin: Maybe we’re very British here and maybe it doesn’t translate to how other kinds of shows work, but at no point did anyone sit in a room with a big whiteboard and say “Ways to move the show forward.” All anyone has ever done on the show, in all the time since it’s come back is, what are the best stories? What are the great characters? What are the big arcs? What are the big surprises? What can we do to make it the biggest, best Saturday night show?
It doesn’t start off from big tally meetings. It comes from a place of creativity and imagination.
Moffat: And the only way to move Doctor Who forward is to make another episode. Each episode is all its own thing. That’s one of its successes. The basic format of Doctor Who is incredibly simple and hasn’t changed in a very, very long time. And the way you move it forward is make another one. Make another one that’s brilliant. That’s that easy.
Minchin: I think since 2005, when the show came back, the whole world of premium TV has changed. Production values, that people expect to watch, on anything have changed enormously. It’s not just this show. It’s like if you go back and look at shows made in 2005 compared to 2016 and 2017, you know, with location shooting, with casts, everything has gone up a few notches. So I think every year on Doctor Who, it’s like, how do we keep pace with making this feel like the best, most relevant TV show in terms of how it looks, in terms of location filming, in terms of CGI? So we do have those conversations, but I think in a script sense, we don’t.
Are you being consulted at all on the selection of the new Doctor? Curious if you think the time is right right now for a diverse pick of the Doctor. With the global reach of the show, where it is right now, where it’s just exploded over the last few years — that could be a really good thing. What do you think on that?
Moffat: Well, I absolutely have zero input on who the new Doctor is and I don’t want any input. I want to see Chris’s Doctor.
Well, as a fan, though. As a fan, what do you want to see?
Moffat: I want the best possible person to play the Doctor. That’s it. That’s it. The person who makes everybody look at them. There is a slight… I mean it ain’t gonna change the world, it’s just gonna save the fictional one. That’s what it’s gonna do. So, it’s a debate I’ve mostly stayed away from because I have never found a way to be quoted accurately on the subject. People just reframe my words, mash them up, turn them around to make it sound as though I’m saying something else.
Now, I’ll just be really clear: casting is the most important job in television. I think it’s what makes the difference between a huge hit and a huge failure. I’ll give you the entire priority list for casting. I’ll give it to you now and you can remember it. You can even write it down if you want. Cast the right person. That’s it. That’s it. That’s all you do. Nothing else.
I have absolute confidence, complete and total ringing confidence that Chris Chibnall will do that. He will choose the person with whom he wants to collaborate to create a new Doctor and that’s what I want him to do. I don’t want input. I’ll find out with the rest of you because it’s about him now.