The Anatomy of a Showrunner: An Interview with Steven Moffat

jason stives talks with one of the most beloved showrunners in television today …

MOFFATHEADER

At this point in his career, writer Steven Moffat has reached beyond just England in the appeal of his work and has broken through a tough ceiling in the American markets with two high profile shows. Both Doctor Who and the critically acclaimed Sherlock have found a wide audience on their respected channels garnering critical praise, commercial success, and numerous recognitions. While Sherlock is just beginning production on its third series, his main focus currently is on Doctor Who, which is celebrating its 50th Anniversary in 2013 and returns with eight new episodes this Saturday on BBC America.

469px-Steven_Moffat_Comic_Con_2008

The show has taken on a life of its own in the US after spending years as a cult British import. Three years ago Doctor Who, which features Matt Smith as the eleventh incarnation of The Doctor, has found a home here gracing the covers of Entertainment Weekly and TV Guide as well as garnering record ratings for BBC America. In a conference call presented by BBC America, Moffat explained that the show’s simple premise and overall accessibility has made the show a success here in the United States.

“You don’t have to catch up with the rest of it. It’s a very simple myth. It’s a man that can travel anywhere in time and space in a box bigger on the inside,” Moffat explained of the show’s appeal. “That’s why we latch onto it. It’s terrific. It’s simple to understand what it’s about. It’s hugely entertaining and every so often it completely reinvents itself to feel at home in its new era, which is really the key ingredient.”

While the premise is simple, it’s the chemistry of the show’s leads and their ability to connect with the audience that keeps the show personal to the fans. This season sees The Doctor tackling the mystery of his newest companion, Clara Oswald (played by Jenna Louise Coleman). Like every new companion, the personal journey for both The Doctor and his companion are front and center. Around all the strange worlds and various monsters that inhabit the universe of the show, the story always comes back to how The Doctor relates to his companion, and how their journey together shapes them.

DOCTOR WHO SERIES 7B EPISODE 1

“For the storytelling, the emotional connection has to happen to somebody. The Doctor himself has to happen to somebody,” Moffat explained. “So very often in Doctor Who, the companion is just as important as The Doctor. He/she is not necessarily the one with all the cool lines, and not all the cool moments, but is the hero at the end of day. We never see how The Doctor began his journey, we will probably never see how he ends, but we know all those companions and who they were before they met The Doctor.”

Clara, much like her predecessors has to be a particular kind of character; someone who doesn’t have an agenda and someone who can act as the personal gateway to the fans watching at home. Jenna Louise Coleman brings a lot of wit and romance to the role of Clara but that framework has to be set up ahead of the casting. When it comes to creating the narrative skeleton to a new companion, Moffat says one has to imagine someone who isn’t seen as a companion or a supporting player but someone mad enough to runaway in the TARDIS with a strange man.

“I don’t know what sort of person would run through those blue doors. A lot of people would probably run in the opposite direction, including me to be honest when I discovered how dangerous it was,” he laughs. “So you have to imagine somebody who’s ready to say ‘yes’ to running away with a clearly insane man and ride a time machine. That is your starting point with that character.”

Credit: Adrian Rogers, ©BBC/BBC WORLDWIDE
Credit: Adrian Rogers, ©BBC/BBC WORLDWIDE

Creating such colorful and relatable characters is just one of Moffat’s numerous tasks throughout the year long production schedule. While the task of running a successful series can be stressful, the pleasure of a longtime fan still runs through his veins. A fan since childhood, Moffat has been a part of the Doctor Who universe now for almost a decade, starting with the show’s revival in 2005 under former executive producer Russell T. Davies.

Moffat’s involvement in the show has resulted in the some of the show’s most important episodes to date and when he took over from Davies in 2009, he was given the opportunity to mold the show into something he has been thinking about since he was a kid. Despite the increase in responsibility, the transition from behind the sofa to behind the curtains has been interchangeable and Steven even admits that he tends to forget a time when he wasn’t working on the show.

“It happened so long ago. I’ve been involved in this for quite a long time that I’m starting to forget,” Moffat recollects. “It’s very exciting but massively demanding and I don’t have any doubt that Doctor Who had always been and will always be that. Your fandom remains intact, you stay excited by Doctor Who and the idea of Doctor Who always remains thrilling.”

Doctor Who series finale

Despite the massive demands, he doesn’t go it alone. He has enlisted numerous writers to help shape the world of everyone’s favorite Timelord. During his tenure, the show has seen a plethora of high profile writers take a stab at writing for the Doctor. From Hollywood screenwriters like Richard Curtis to acclaimed authors like Neil Gaiman, everyone wants a shot at writing the word ‘TARDIS’ on a blank piece of paper. But the majority of the writers who write for Doctor Who fit a certain pedigree. Many of the writers are show runners in their own right including: Toby Whitehouse (Being Human) Matthew Graham (Life on Mars) and long time collaborator Mark Gatiss (Sherlock, League of Gentleman). This series sees acclaimed British writer Neil Cross having a go at Matt Smith’s Doctor and despite being a busy man in his own right, his loyalty as a fan overcame any priorities.

“He’s a huge Doctor Who fan,” Moffat says of the Luther creator. “And even though in both occasions this year he did not have the time to write an episode, let alone two, and he leapt at the chance to shove everything out of the way to do write. That’s sort of what I’m looking for all the time, and this sounds terribly snobbish and awful but I’m looking for showrunner-level writers who’d give their right arm to write a Doctor Who story.”

With the amount of work that goes into producing the longest running science fiction series, Moffat has probably given his right arm on many occasions to ensure the best possible product. Beyond the forthcoming eight episodes he is overseeing the show’s 50th anniversary special and the 2013 Christmas special before moving onto an inevitable eighth series. Even with the 50th anniversary firmly on the minds of the fans, Steven says the key to keeping the show fresh is progression and treating every episode like it’s an event.

Photo Credit: Ray Burmiston,  ©BBC/BBC WORLDWIDE
Photo Credit: Ray Burmiston, ©BBC/BBC WORLDWIDE

“The show must be seen to be going forward; it’s all about the next 50 years not about the last 50 years,” he says with confidence. “The Doctor is moving forward as he always does, and he wants to solve the mystery of Clara. He’s not thinking about all his previous incarnations and his previous adventures; he’s thinking about the future, and that for me is important. The show must never feel old. It must always feel brand new and a 50th anniversary can play against that.”

With a new found love here in North America, Doctor Who is as fresh as it was back in 1963; 50 years on its ability to renew itself for a constantly changing audience remains its biggest strength. For Steven Moffat, nothing would make him happier than seeing the show go for another half century but, in the mean time, there are eight episodes on the way and that is just the beginning of a big year for this British institution.

Doctor Who returns tonight with “The Bells of Saint John” at 8pm on BBC America as part of ‘Supernatural Saturday’

 

 

 

All Photos Credit: BBC America