Steven Moffat and Doctor Who Script Editor Nick attended a special BBC Writers Room event on 30 September 2016. heading the show during a period of unprecedented social media scrutiny, would more insights into the writing process emerge as Moffat’s tenure nears its end..?
Turning up to this one-off Writer’s Room Writing Doctor Who session came with slight trepidation.
Don’t bother with structure, over-pitching, plotting – just get on and write the bloody thing. Every time I’ve seen Steven Moffat discuss the scripting of Doctor Who, or indeed any of his oeuvre, that’s been the gist. It often pops up during overarching events of course, celebrating the fiction and production of the show, but it’s always pierced specific writing sessions where sat other Who writers he’s commissioned, the gleam of meticulous script structure dulling in their eyes.
It’s a simplification, but Moffat’s bullish view of writing Who left a rather difficult set of questions hanging in the vortex. Here’s a showrunner who’s as witty, quick and quick to treat deserving questions with contempt as he’s at pains to spell out the absolute hell of his writing journey. So, given an hour or so to talk about the series’ writing process as a whole, could there possibly be any greater insight?
Under the label of Writing Doctor Who, a special session brought to bear by the BBC’s proactive Writer’s Room, Moffat was joined by script editor Nick Lambon taking the chat firmly into the in-house scripting machine behind Doctor Who. The position in that machine of the various writers brought in to bolster each series was destined to come into play. But while this might not have dripped with the anticipation of a scoop on some of the rumours that have circulated the scripting of his tenure, this was potentially the closest we were ever likely to get to Moffat’s version of The Writer’s Tale: His predecessor Russell T Davies’ definitive, and then later, even more definitive exploration of his time in that role.
There’s no doubt that clasping the creative reigns of Doctor Who for nearly seven years, setting records for the number of stories written, years in charge and the most Doctors written for on the way, is no easy task. So the session presented a broad remit on the mechanics of shaping that most difficult of shows. Yes, the show that can go anywhere, any when, with anyone from one episode to the next.
Proceedings kicked off with two clips, one from 2007’s Blink, another from 2014’s Dark Water. Both dramatic, both tinged with the pithy and disarming comedy that will live on as one of Moffat’s considerable trademarks. That’s on screen and behind the scenes. “I’m very proud of Blink, obviously,” said Moffat when asked about the much lauded episode. “It’s one of the things I’ve done that isn’t shit.” Later he’d brush Blink off with a frank assessment that, as a Doctorless story, it doesn’t count.
Yes, Moffat was bullish and as wry as to be expected. “My wife would get very bored if I rang her every time I felt pleased about myself,” he said when the “go to hell” line from Dark Water was raised, before typically spending the best part of an hour trying to convey the terror that confronts him every time he writes “int. TARDIS”. From where I sat, it was difficult to tell quite how much his eyeballs bulged or the pitch of his voice rose each time that terror bubbled to the surface.
It was marked that this session began with a scene from one of Who’s most effective forays into terror and an infernal joke in an episode that confronted the afterlife. When later asked about the tone of the show Moffat eloquently explained his position on the show’s irresistible darker aspect.” Doctor Who explains adult themes in a way that is accessible to children.”
Into the process
Major interest came from having two staff members give their insight into the complete process, of which the pitching and craft of shaping other writers’ scripts is just one, if major, aspect. And it was insightful. Moffat described the “hierarchy of the best idea”, painting a relatable image of the long hard process of formulating ideas, from early group analysis of the previous series through endless meetings in sterile, stuffy rooms hammering out the showrunner’s early plans. Of course, those meetings are a necessary evil that seldom prove fruitful, far more inspiration coming later during random strolls past office desks. That’s how every discussion goes eventually said Moffat, on what he described as the constantly “sinking lifeboat” of Doctor Who. Yes, like character, like production. No surprise there, considering the history of show over the past decade, or indeed the past five.
In this session, Moffat’s role as executive producer was necessarily subservient to his role as lead writer. But while it was only acknowledged openly in later questions that touched on the overall and considerable pressures of the show, it was a pretty significant elephant standing just outside those oft-mentioned airless rooms.
Bright, funny but irascible, Moffat has never comes across as the most likeable, particularly when sat alongside more mild-mannered cast and crewmembers. There’s often a hint of irritation and the rather maniacal sheen of ambiguity in responses that can easily be taken the wrong way. But then, especially in the new era’s merger of the classic era’s script editor and producer, he’s the most exposed. More so than his predecessor, working in a wholly different BBC even a decade on. Still, his has never been the ebullient presence that could charm an audience into accepting anything he said, unlike Russell T Davies. Moffat’s just as likely to have the audience in hysterics as RTD, but there’s always a catch, often that ambiguity. There’s also never a doubt as to the intelligence behind his words, just as there wasn’t with RTD. And to draw the comparison even more, a couple of early anecdotes allowed Moffat to shrewdly establish that Davies also seldom had an idea where his series were going late on in the process. After all, as Moffat pointed out later, he and Davies are story writers and not transcribers of some parallel reality.
The last series
There were no spoilers about the well underway Series 10, as might be expected, but there were some intriguing references to his final year. Currently shooting the 2016 Christmas Special Moffat revealed that the story came from one of his previously rejected pitches after producer Brian Minchin suggested he pick it up again.
With one series of his tenure left, it’s not clear that Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor will become Moffat’s definitive Doctor. It is clear that the complicated arcs that befuddled Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor will remain a key point when analysing his work as the most prolific writer in Doctor Who’s 53 years. But on the issue of arcs, Moffat was again astute. Bullishly awaiting the many years appraising his tenure, his fair pre-defence is, “how can you have continuity issues in a show that changes history and has parallel universes?”He also referred back to the model set by Series One’s Bad Wolf story arc. Of course, that was nothing of the sort, but in the enthusiasm of that first year the casual references that dotted almost every episode conjured up powerful speculation that could never be recaptured. As Moffat reasoned, “We can never get near that again”. But as he added, that’s hardly an issue no matter the responses to Hybrids and river Songs. The reality of Doctor Who, a show built on change, is that “the story of the week is king”.
Onto those other writers. I had last caught Moffat on stage alongside writer Sarah Dollard, soon announced to heading back to Series 10 after her marvellous Series 9 script Face the Raven. Her killer pitch of ‘Do you know what a Trap Street is?’ was hailed then, and it remains a prime example of recent pitches. Finding that thing that was so Doctor Who, but had never made it into Doctor Who is key, but clearly no easy trick. It helped that Sarah was a Doctor Who fan, but also that she wasn’t overburdened by fanaticism.
Singled out as a contrast was Catherine Tregenna, writer of Series 9’s The Woman who Lived, who Moffat had chased for a script for some time after she turned in a number of brilliant hours for spin-off Torchwood. Tregenna had long resisted, thinking Doctor Who just wasn’t for her, until Moffat pitched her an idea she could sink her teeth into. While not a highlight of the show’s ninth year, it was a measured exploration of a theme recently ignored in modern Who and a crucial part of the fabric of one of the revitalised show’s best series.
There’s no doubt that the scale and range of writing talent that’s been brought to Who in just the last decade of its resurgence is an important part of its continued freshness. It’s interesting but not surprising to hear that the vast bulk of submissions are uninteresting. Or that script ideas from seasoned writers are often over-stuffed with a lifetime of watching Doctor Who. The anti-Dollards. However, it’s to be hoped that her quick return to the show doesn’t mirror Neil Gaiman’s. From series six darling to series seven villain, while Nightmare in Silver wasn’t as irresistible as The Doctor’s Wife, I never thought it blotted Gaiman’s immaculate copybook.
Overall, when it comes to pitching, something Moffat freely admitted he was far too good at as he’s left with impossible promises to fulfil, he strongly advocates that “less I more”.
Lambon expanded on the mechanics of the process, explaining that pre-production started six of seven weeks prior to an episode’s recording. This constituted the tone meetings, long and tortuous as might be expected from a bloated gathering designed to ensure that all departments are on the same page. Then the read-throughs, usually carried out in pairs after a day’s filming, with script personnel stepping into roles not yet cast or vacant, and generally cursing the survival of those subbed roles. No wonder that the behind the scenes videos of those read-throughs always have a certain look.
After that comes an obligatory further redraft, crucial after hearing the script read for the first time. And then of course, a shooting script that is seldom final, with Nick and team rejoining the process as and providing a fresh perspective after edit for any necessary ADR. Of course, exceptions make the rule. Moffat used the example of The Husbands of River Song, as he rather sadly puts it, “the last one that was on” where he added a scene to draw out the links between River, the Doctor and the two towers at the end of the process. Not for the last time he quoted Richard Curtis. “Sorry it’s too long, I didn’t have time to make it shorter”. But most importantly he adds, ““Writers should always be able to change their minds”
Inevitably, Day of the Doctor reared its golden head. And even three years on, it does sound horrific. The stand-off between several actors of standing who had every right to read a script before signing on and the writer of some standing who had every right not to reveal any of the script until he knew who was going to sign it on. Juggling poker cards doesn’t sum it up. “It was hellish” Moffat said, adding that he wasn’t even sure what lessons there were to draw from the process. Except perhaps that he’d never attempt anything like it again. As he said, it has to be a serious drama and it has to be a party, before rather unfairly congratulating Star Trek for not doing any such thing to celebrate its golden anniversary this year.
Writers in waiting
When the emphasis fell on questions from the audience, Moffat was quick to reel off his early doors refusal of the three questions he’s always asked. As always, informative, honest, witty and ever so slightly acerbic. There’ll be no Sherlock crossover. There’s no vacancy for the Doctor, but the role could feasibly go to a woman in future. And his favour Doctor is… Doctor Who. The reaction depends on the crowd, in the BBC Radio Theatre filled with a fair few writers, it was quickly dispersed laughter.
Moffat quoted Curtis again when asked about trailer spoilers: All the best jokes should be put in the trailer. It’s not important that an audience is surprised in the end, just that they show up. True, but more insightful when it quickly led to his admission that the publicity for Series 9 was mishandled. Too much was held back. And everyone knows that Davros is no wallflower.
Last autumn, Is aw Moffat explained how he urged Sarah Dollard not to intricately plan her script for Face the Raven but just get on and write it. In contrast in this session, Lambon drew out Toby Whithouse as a writer who likes to meticulously lay out every cog, he of course a successful showrunner in his own right. But as Moffat says of writing Doctor Who, he with the most credits to his name in the show’s history, “You feel like an absolute amateur. Every single time”. While he extolled the process of outing pen to draft as soon as possible, there’s a clear caveat in the fact that he resolutely writes chronologically. Writing episode scenes in the order they appear to a viewer is a cardinal rule, but one fraught with its own issues. There may be a killer scene ahead, but it’s only as good as the iron links that lead up to it. You jump ahead at your peril, and the trick is making sure that in the finished draft that killer scene isn’t actually outshone by those supporting links.
In all, Writing Doctor Who was an insightful session that let us further into the process of bringing the Time Lord to screen under the gaze of Steven Moffat than ever before. But in doing so, perhaps it exposed between the constant reaffirmation of the tortuous writing regime something beyond Moffat, Lambon or even the BBC’s control. Discussing the function and process of the script department as in its entirety, it highlighted the complicated way the British do things. One of the first and still major examples of a showrunner model, it all seems horribly painful compared to the American model it semi-emulates.
While full briefs and session over the Atlantic ensure that every writer is in the loop and plot strands can be woven over series of up to 26 or so parts, arriving annually give or take a writer’s strike, it’s hard not to think that the Who model is slightly contrary and overly complex. A core group of a script team has emerged while, to us outsiders, writers appear kept at a certain arm’s length. Yes, it’s a contrariness that reflects the subject of the programme. But a result of Who’s many pressures, affecting talent and production house, is the current delay that will ensure the tenth series arrives in the rebooted show’s twelfth year.
Over on Jokerside I compiled a rather brazen ranking of the great show’s hiatuses. Just as that’s a quirk in the show’s rich fabric, so is the quite plausibly over-complex production structure.
There’s so much unknown, so much that will likely never be known, about the process behind the show’s emergence on television, particularly these past six years. S it’s all the more commendable that this session popped up in the middle of production.
Two days later, BBC Wales published the position of script editor. With Broadchurch Series 3 in deep production, it indicates the wheels that are starting to turn under incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall.
Although Moffat’s tenure, like all before him, will remain divisive, his remain tricky boots to fill. A real power of the show, although not flattering to anyone, is that the change it embraces, encourages and demands can be pinned on specific characters behind the scenes. Throughout the years, these producers, script editors and execs have been as important to fans as the occupants of the TARDIS. There’s a strangely appealing quality to its obsession with change. After all, if you don’t like what’s happening under one writer or producer, just wait for a crew change. It’s same as it ever was.
And in a typically hopeless and optimistic way, one of Moffat’s statements shone through the pain, panic, terror and sleepless nights during the hour.
“It’s a brilliant job”.