Interview: 'Doctor Who' showrunner Steven Moffat on Amy, River, Rory and more

And how hard is it to write the Doctor and Sherlock Holmes at the same time?

Steven Moffat says Matt Smith's "Doctor Who" performance was evident in his first audition.
Steven Moffat says Matt Smith's "Doctor Who" performance was evident in his first audition.
Credit: BBC

The sixth (modern) season of "Doctor Who" returns to BBC America on Saturday night at 9 with an episode cheekily-titled "Let's Kill Hitler." I haven't seen the episode yet, but will presumably have a post-air review of it up that night.

When I was at press tour earlier this month, I got a chance to sit down with Steven Moffat, the man in charge of the "Who"-niverse these days, to talk about the intertwined lives of Amy Pond and River Song, about the famous audition that made Matt Smith the youngest Doctor ever, about the recurring themes of Moffat's time on the show, the workload of writing for the Doctor and Sherlock Holmes simultaneously, and more.

I want to start out by asking about the timeline. When you were doing the "Silence in the Library" two-parter, had you and Russell (Davies) already talked about the idea of you taking over the show the following year?

It's really hard to get all that fixed in my head. Talked about it just after this, TCAs, in 2007 when I was here for "Jekyll." So, yes, we would have talked about it when I wrote it.

So you knew going in that you would have this story to tell with River and you'd be in charge to tell it?

That wasn't especially my plan. It came about for the most practical of reasons, River: it was because the Doctor had to be found in a library that had been sealed off for 100 years, and a team of archaeologists had to walk through that door, and some things the psychic paper won't cover. So I didn't want to have a long section where he was arrested, like the show used to have. That would be boring. And it was really hard, actually, to get around that. I thought that the lamest idea in the world is that one of them knows him, and I felt that was too much of a coincidence. But you can disguise the coincidence, hide it out of sight, if it's someone he hasn't met yet. And then it's just click-click-click: What if it's a woman? What if it's a woman who flirts with him? And then you think, "That's going to upstage the rest of the story, but let's do it anyway." But even at that point, I was thinking that this would be a one-off character. She was designed to be, and maybe she could be canoodling the 45th Doctor, and we wouldn't have to see her again until I'm no longer materially involved in either making or watching it. But because Alex (Kingston) was so good, and the character was so popular, why not?

At what point did you realize the relationship that River and Amy would have?

Remember, all plans have to be susceptible to change. What if Karen had left early? You can't make final decisions. In the process of writing that two-parter and rewriting the two-parter, I came up with one version of who she could be. So I left the option open when I came up with Amy Pond, knowing I was probably but not definitely going to bring River back. I made sure there was some link - the Pond/River thing - that I could return to later.

So in the scene in the stone angels two-parter where Amy meets River, you're writing it with the idea that, "If I go through with this, people are going to go back and watch this episode and see how River reacts to it"?

Yes. Plan A held, but anything could have happened. We could have decided that we didn't like River with Matt. Or it would interfere with Amy.

In both the library two-parter and the angels two-parter, we got the sense that River and the Doctor's encounters have been extremely out of order. But when she appears at the start of this current season, she says, basically, that they've been traveling in exactly opposite directions.

No, she's talking poetically.

Okay.

It's the broad sweep of it. Even within the series, it doesn't happen that way. She's saying that while there will be individual moments that are out of sequence, in the broad sweep of things, she tends to deal with a younger Doctor each time.

Because one of the things that's interesting in that same episode is that she tells Rory to imagine meeting the Doctor when you're very young, and how much that would influence you. And that's basically Amy's story, and it was Madame de Pompadour's story (in the Moffat-written "The Girl in the Fireplace"). What is it about this idea of the Doctor influencing someone throughout their life that's so interesting to you?

I think it's the story of the whole series, not just those characters. Ex-companions must have to deal with that for the rest of their lives, but we hardly ever see them again. Realistically, that would be the highlight of your life, the most extraordinary thing. You'd never be able to watch a science program without laughing at it. Everyone would speculate about life on other planets, and you'd know. It would change your life forever. The series has always been the story of how the companion changes, not how the Doctor changes. The Doctor doesn't change very much. That's always the story.

So the childhood meeting is just an easy way to illustrate that, rather than revisiting a former companion years later?

I like things that force the Doctor to address that he's aging much more slowly than everyone else. I think that's interesting, whether you do it in the simple, cartoony way of him missing an entire growing up, or just seeing Amy and Rory. They're getting married, getting a house, while the Doctor is remaining fundamentally the same, while they grow up around him. Which is why he tries to get out of their lives. It's too hard.

There do seem to be certain other recurring themes from your episodes in the Davies era that keep coming up now that you're in charge. Is it just the case of, because you're responsible in some way for every episode, the things that you enjoy doing with the character come up more often? Or is it just, "Hey, this works, I'd like to do it as much as I can"?

I don't think it's even authorship. I've talked with Russell about this. There are certain ideas that become prevalent in the series, because everyone thinks of them at once. When Russell was doing it, he said that one year, everybody was talking about breeding planets. Frequently, you find a bunch of people who, with no confab at all, are going on about the same thing. And maybe just because we're all living in the same world, absorbing the same news stories, we all tend to think of the same things. It's just a bunch of ideas being informed by the same preoccupations.

Obviously, you're writing for a different Doctor, but beyond that, how has the experience of writing for this character changed now that you're in charge versus being the guy who parachutes in once a year?

The actual experience of writing a "Doctor Who" story is pretty much the same, because it's still a "Doctor Who" story. The difference is the obvious one: I have to worry about all the episodes, where before I was just worrying about my episode and trying to know as little as possible about the others. I would just drive on, do my one script, and go off. It's not a unique experience to me. I've done this before with other shows; I'm just doing it with "Doctor Who."

There's the famous story: you were not expecting to cast a Doctor as young as Matt, Matt comes in, wows you, he's the guy. When I interviewed Matt a while back and asked him what it was he did that impressed you, he couldn't quite put it into words. What did you see? What was he doing?

The same performance you see on the show now. I still have it on my laptop. It's the same performance he gives now. He was just brilliant. He was by far the best.

What scene was it? Was it something new, or an older scene for Tennant or Eccleston?

I worked up three scenes. A couple were from "The Eleventh Hour," like the one where he's tied up by Amy, and the one where he runs into the town center and sees the Atraxi. And then the one where Amy's hand is turning into stone. It's really dead-simple. His acting was outstanding, his grasp of the character. He's exactly what you see on the screen right now. It was actually alarming. It was literally the first time he'd done it, and he had the hair, the manner, all of it.

(Producers) Piers (Wenger) and Beth (Willis) talked in the panel about how the character has even become a bit more like Matt over time. When you were writing "Eleventh Hour," what ways did you see that Eleven was different from Ten or Nine?

I really, honestly, never think of it like that. The important thing to me is that it's the same man. Literally the same man, in every single respect. What changes is, you'd be behaving differently if you were wearing a suit today, or something else. So he's got a different body, and certain things alter. But how it changes in terms of how you write it, is - just unconsciously, without thinking about it - to start maximizing what the new actor brings to it. You're not even working out what those things are. Initially, and quite fearlessly, I just wrote David. And when David started, I just wrote Chris. Russell said the same thing: "Just write the Doctor, and see what he does with it." With Matt, it's a return to the more mad Doctor like the old show, but in a younger, cooler form than he's ever been before.

In "Eleventh Hour," he seems much too old for that face, and as that series went along, he becomes younger and almost like a petulant kid, which I quite enjoyed.

He can do both, really. He can do the grand old man when he needs to. Everyone was talking about how young Matt is, but who says the Doctor's old? The Doctor's young. He just has a very long lifespan.

One of the things you talked about in the press conference is that each set of writers can change the mythology and do whatever they want. One of the major changes you made was to get rid of the paradox rule. The Doctor can cross his own timeline and change things a little bit.

I didn't get rid of it. It's changed throughout the history of the series. He's always changing time.

Well, in Russell's era, there was always a specific point about how, "I can't go back to this place I've just been and do it differently."

That's not quite it. He says there are fixed points, like Pompeii is fixed. But otherwise, he's changing time all the time. Can he go over his own timestream? He does it in "Smith and Jones," he does it every time he meets himself. Are we really saying there's a rule the Doctor isn't going to break? The fact that he says it's a rule doesn't mean he's going to stick to it.

When Toby (Whithouse) was at Comic-Con, he says he loves that "wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey" phrase because it gives him license to not even worry about that sort of thing.

It's a joke line, but the truth is it's just as useful as saying, "It's the inter-fantastical nature of the sub-space continuum." It's all gobble-dy gook.

I watched the two-parter that opened this season, and I thought to myself, "Wow, this is a show for children, and they're not dumbing it down at all." That was a very structurally-complicated two scripts there.

When did we decide that children - who learn to read in a very short space of time, who learn to speak the English language within a year and a half, who can learn anything faster than you or I - are stupid? They're bored by different things, and there are some complicated emotions that can be confusing to them. But I always get gobsmacked when people say that. Have you seen what they're reading? Harry Potter? These great big doorstops of books! And children who watch television, watch it like this (he folds his hands under his chin and stares intently at an imaginary screen). And if there's something that maybe makes them say, "I didn't quite understand that, Dad, what happened?" and they have a conversation about it, can someone tell me what's wrong with that?

I think it's fantastic. I admire it. I'm just used to this notion of, like I said, dumbing it down when it's maybe not necessary.

If you ever, ever, ever dumb anything down, you are assuming other people aren't as clever as you. And you will not survive long. Always assume people are smarter than you.

I want to get back to another recurring theme of yours, which is people traveling through time the long way. That comes up in the first episode with the Weeping Angels, Rory does it as the centurion. What is it about that that interests you?

It's more the other thing. It's more that the Doctor cannons around life in a short way. He skips ahead to the interesting bits, and that gives him an odd relationship with the universe. He doesn't own a time machine, he actually lives in one. He lives his life in the wrong sequence. I just think that that colliding with ordinary lives is tragic and odd, and gives him a very strange and very inhuman perspective on things like death.

This may be something that's addressed in the remaining six episodes, and if so you don't need to answer, but Amy has been attracted to the Doctor, the Doctor has some sort of relationship with what turns out to be Amy's daughter - what is the meaning of that, from a Freudian perspective, or whatever?

(Laughs) Well, he didn't know! And first of all, he does comprehensively reject Amy's advances. He absolutely says "No." And that has nothing to do with whatever relationship he has with River. It has to do that for the Doctor, Amy will always be 7. And that's just appalling to him. Not that he isn't aware that she's pretty. And it's fan-generated nonsense to say that the Doctor doesn't like pretty women. The entire run of the show tells you the true story about that. But he absolutely says no. I'm not sure, if Rose had flung herself at him in that way, that he wouldn't have just gone with it. Probably would if River did.

So I'm not sure there's that kind of complexity. There's a temporal problem there. River seems to him like an older person, someone more like him, and Amy seems like a child, and oddly enough Amy is the mother of River.

And for however long baby River, or Melody, is gone, how do you keep Amy as the carefree, headstrong character we like, while her baby has been abducted?

You'll have to wait and watch, won't you? It's dealt with.

Have you given any thought at this stage to how many more stories you have about this character?

Not really. I think I would run out of energy and stamina and all that before I'd run out of stories. Because doing this and "Sherlock" as well, this is savage.

I've seen you on Twitter talk about how one of the shows is in production and you're in a corner writing for the other one, going back and forth. Has that been manageable for you?

"Manageable" is the wrong word. It's "survivable." You can do it. You have no choice. That said, I think it's, "I have no choice, therefore I will do it," rather than, "This is a sane way to live your life." This is not f--king sane what I'm doing right now.

But it's brilliant.

And that's the thing. This will never come again. I'm not sure anyone's ever had this: the two great dramas in the country. I can't think of anyone who's done it.

But it's not just the two great dramas. It's two of the most iconic characters in the country, ever.

I know. I'm very, very fortunate, so I can't spend my time bellyaching about the fact that my work schedule is truly tragic. It's truly shocking.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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Alan Sepinwall
Sr. Editor, What's Alan Watching
Alan Sepinwall has been reviewing television since the mid-'90s, first for Tony Soprano's hometown paper, The Star-Ledger, and now for HitFix. His new book, "The Revolution Was Televised," about the last 15 years of TV drama, is for sale at Amazon. He can be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com
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