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Easter, and the Doctor rises again (2010)

2010-03-20 Times.jpg

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  • Publication: The Times
  • Date: 2010-03-20
  • Author: Andrew Billen
  • Page: Saturday Review, p. 4
  • Language: English

As viewers prepare for Time Lord No 11, a new assistant and a retooled Tardis, there is also a new man taking charge of the show, writer Steven Moffat. 'It's going to be a shock when it goes on air,' he tells Andrew Billen


Plus ça change, plus c'est la même Doctor Who. Or is it? "I finally saw a completed episode last night," says Steven Moffat, P who, in a useful Americanism, is the venerable sci-fi series's new "show runner". "Everything, every single thing you see and hear is new: new man playing the part; new girl; the theme music's the same but it's been rearranged; different titles... "

"Even the inside of the Tardis?" I ask, because people will want to know. "Yes, everything." I remind him of Time Crash, the mini-Doctor Who episode he wrote for the 2008 Children in Need telethon. In it, the fifth doctor, Peter Davison, materialising in the modern Tardis, noted that the tenth doctor, David Tennant, had changed its "desktop theme". "It was a good save, I think," Moffat says without undue modesty.

The most obvious change when Doctor Who returns on Holy Saturday will, of course, be the new man playing the lead, the scarce-shaven Matt Smith. But the writer who cast him, and his new companion, Karen Gillan, may be more important, the ultimate arbiter of where the Tardis is going, and that could be towards comedy, horror, camp or even soap opera.

Moffat, a48-year-oldScot, until recently best known for his emotionally wrought sitcoms, succeeds Russell T. Davies, who will always be credited with saving Doctor Who. Moffat is a good-looking man, dressed today in a smart-casual top in a PR's office in Soho. He looks relaxed about the changes he is bringing. Perhaps he can afford to be. If a series predicated on a time travelling alien in a spaceship that looks like a 1950s police phone box can endure for 46 years and 756 episodes, it should be good for the five years we can expect Moffat to remain at its helm. Yet it has nearly died before, first in1989, when it was put on indefinite hiatus after looking increasingly tatty compared with the cinema sci-fi epics spawned by Star Wars, and again in 1996, when a one-off film revival co-produced with Fox flopped in America. Its relaunch five years ago was spectacularly, almost worryingly, successful. It was swiftly hailed as the key to the revival of Saturday-night family viewing and to the credibility of the BBC as a public service broadcaster with the popular touch. All Moffat must do is maintain its reputation and its ratings and ensure that its more obsessive fans, the keepers of the faith, stay onside.

The knack to not being overawed by the responsibility is, apparently, to live in denial that your episodes will ever be shown. "It's going to be a terrible shock when it goes on air," he says. "It'll be like a security breach."

Talking of this, there is a PR in the room minding our conversation and I would expect nothing less from a show that once made me sign a legal acknowledgment that if I revealed details of a forthcoming episode I would do "irreparable damage to the BBC". Moffat smiles. Doctor Who "motors on surprise"; they are not keeping secrets from people but for people. I am sure, then, that there is plenty he does not tell me in the next 70 minutes, but I do glean that there will be a Dalek episode written by Mark League of Gentleman Gatiss, a Van Gogh episode by Richard Curtis, and another by Men Behaving Badly's Simon Nye, although none of these comedy writers will necessarily be playing for laughs. Alex Kingston returns to play River Song, deepening the mystery of whether in the Doctor's pastor future she is his wife.

And there will be vampire girls! "The funniest thing ever in Doctor Who is Matt Smith trying to contain his enthusiasm in the face of all those vampire girls," says Moffat, who once boasted that before he met his second wife, the television producer Sue Virtue, he "shagged" his way round television studios "like a mechanical digger".

It all sounds a long way from the Doctor Who of William Hartnell, that censorious Victorian who materialised one teatime in 1963 just after John F. Kennedy had been shot dead. When, three years on, Hartnell's health worsened, the BBC "regenerated" a new actor into the part. It was a gamble, but, by injecting humour, Patrick Troughton proved a still better Doctor. Regeneration has since proved Doctor Who's immortality pill. "The thing that happens with Doctor Who is that from time to time it ages. It just ages, because it's the same production team and the same lead. The wonderful thing it can do is simply change everything so it literally becomes a brand new series."

That Moffat was the best candidate to succeed Davies is indicated by everyone just a assuming he would. Like most children born in the Sixties, a lifelong fan of the show, he e-mailed Davies to congratulate him when he landed the contract to revive it. "He wrote back, 'If it goes to more than six episodes I'll be going to you for a script'." Moffat began writing at the rate of one story a season, and every season his stories turned out to be the best: The Empty Child, the one with the children and the gas masks; The Girl in the Fireplace, as near to a love story as there has been for the Doctor; Blink, which risked featuring more of Carey Mulligan (whatever happened to her?) than David Tennant, the Doctor himself. Did Moffat want the gig? Only so much that his agent phoned Steven Spielberg's producer and said that Moffat wanted out of the Tintin movie he had written for him.

Davies is big and gay and Welsh. Moffat, the father of two Doctor Who-age sons, is slim, straight and Scottish. The two writers' sensibilities are obviously going to be different. Would Moffat, for instance, have a wheelie-bin burp as Davies did in his first Doctor Who in 2005? "Well, in fairness to Russell, he didn't have one either. It was a last-minute decision and they thought, 'OK, we'll keep it'. I remember watching and thinking, 'Would I do that, while Doctor Who's tone was settling?' But you know, kids laughed. I'd quite happily do things to make children laugh. The thing is, Doctor Who isn't just Hammer Horror or sci-fi. It's also a little bit The Generation Game, a little bit showbiz. It's a weird show. It's half scary Gothic castle, half shiny floorshow. And that's part of it. Any show can be one or the other, but Doctor Who manages to be both and have a burping wheelie bin and an absolutely heart-breaking scene in the same episode."

And be terrifying too? "Oh yes. I mean, imagine the sheer nonsense of devising a show, one of whose mission statements was to terrorise eight-year-olds! I'm not sure we could pitch it now. But then two things that have a mission statement to terrorise children that I can think of are Doctor Who and Harry Potter and they're both huge."

I was certainly mildly freaked by the slow-plodding urban Yeti of Troughton's time. "That was one of the most bizarre ideas in the history of television: Abominable Snowmen loose in the London Underground! What smoke-filled room did that come from, and what was in the smoke?"

What about the Ice Warriors? "They have yet to make a return," Moffat says carefully, but the reptilian Silurians, last seen battling with Davison in 1984, are back this spring. Are any of the old monsters just too silly to revive? "Quite a few. I don't think the Nimon [horned beast with furry legs] is going to make it back. I haven't got much hope for the Bandrils [more lizard creatures] or the Garm [very large dog]. There are loads of monsters that didn't work."

Is there any chance that the stakes will be lower some weeks so that it's not always the Universe about to be destroyed?"But it isn't every week. Sometimes it's one person in peril. But I question your tactics if you are saying we should promote a Doctor Who season finale with the words 'Now smaller than ever!' "

My own theory about Doctor Who's show-runners is that they subconsciously reproduce the Doctor Who of their early childhoods. Davies was 7 when pompous Jon Pertwee took over the part and he must have found shop mannequins walking down Oxford Street terrifying (whereas I was 12 and knew they were ridiculous). The secret, I impertinently instruct Moffat, is witty doctors, serious plots: not the other way round. "It is probably true," he agrees.

Before I skip out of the room rejoicing, however, I need to tackle the Peter Davison issue. For many, Davison, with the question marks on his lapels and the celery in his buttonhole, was the beginning of the end of the Doctor's credibility. Yet Moffat calls him underrated, which was why he invited him back for the Comic Relief skit. Through David Tennant's mouth, he paid him this tribute: "I loved being you. Back when I started at the beginning I wanted to be old and grumpy and impatient. Then I couldn't deal with being young. And then I was you. It was all dashing about and playing cricket and my voice going all squeaky when I shouted..." In picking Smith, who is 27, Moffat may be reincarnating Davison, who, at 29, was the previous youngest recruit to the role. Moffat nevertheless swears he did not plan to cast someone in his twenties. He simply needed someone with star quality and stars of 35-plus generally cannot commit to the filming. Smith's age, Moffat suggests, is almost a red herring. Like policemen, Doctor Whos appear to be getting young because we are getting older. Hartnell, the oldest, was only 55.

However, Smith's youth increases the show's sexual jeopardy. He is only five years older than his new companion, Gillan. Why wouldn't they get it together?

Matt Smith's age is a red herring. Doctor Whos appear to be getting young because we are getting older "The modern Doctor, is he sexualised? He's aware of them. He loved Rose, but he didn't seem to be doing anything about it. So I've just said, 'We're actually making a more definitive statement about this: the Doctor may long, he may notice but he doesn't do.' " This vow of chastity cuts against the grain of Moffat's CV. After taking a degree in English at the University of Glasgow he followed his father into teaching, but had soon written plays for the Edinburgh Fringe and the Glasgow Mayfest. In 1989 he wrote 43 episodes of the ITV children's serial Press Gang. It was his sitcom Joking Apart, starring a pre-Cold Feet Robert Bathurst and Fiona Gillies, that broke new ground, fictionalising Moffat's divorce from his first wife. "I invented the feel-bad sitcom," he notes.

After two series of Chalk, another sitcom that raided his experiences (this time as a teacher) but did not quite take flight, Moffat found his feet in 2000 in Coupling. By then married to Virtue, Moffat did not even nominally disguise its autobiographical roots. Jack Davenport played "Steve" and Sarah Alexander "Susan". The sitcom ended in 2002 with the birth of their first child. Moffat's own boys are 10 and 8; the dates dovetail nicely. An unhappy experience followed in LA, away from family, trying to translate Coupling into a US sitcom to fill the slot left by Friends. But Coupling lasted only three weeks on NBC before it was pulled. Isn't Davies out in LA now? "Yes, and he hates it too."

It strikes me that Tennant's speech in Time Crash may be less about the Doctor than Moffat. "It was autobiographical. I was trying to be serious and old, as you do when you're young. When you're older you just think, 'Actually, it's much harder and much better to be fun'. I've tended in my writing career quite piously and quite sneeringly to inhabit after 9pm on BBC Two. And then you do Doctor Who and you think, 'Isn't it better to entertain an awful lot of people? And, also, isn't it harder?' "

This year the BBC will also broadcast Sherlock, Moffat's take with Mark Gatiss on Conan Doyle. That makes Moffat, I note, part-caretaker of three iconic brands: Tintin, Holmes and Doctor Who. "I could potentially screw them all up," he agrees. Given what he did with Jekyll and Hyde in his 2007 James Nesbitt version, there is not necessarily room for complacency, but I tell him that our chat has left me with a good feeling about his Doctor Who. But then, I add, I left an interview with Russell T. Davies in 2004 privately convinced that his Doctor Who would flop. Moffat looks worried, but only momentarily. What, orWho, do Iknow?

The new series of Doctor Who starts on BBC One on Holy Saturday

Universal truth and killer deathbots

Lastweek I watched DoctorWho with my five-year-old-daughter for the first time. She was keen to see it. Some boys and girls had been talking about it at school. But there were some tricky things to explain. How could Doctor Who's spaceship be bigger on the inside than on the outside? What did I mean when I said that he travels in time as well as in space? Did I mean he can go to the olden days? He can travel to the future? You can't travel to the future! What the blimey are you talking about, Daddy? Fair point. I grew up with Doctor Who. Well, with Tom Baker. In a pre-video age, I missed only one episode from his seven years of looking bohemian and saving the galaxy. That's more a confession than a boast nobody ever earned cool points by admitting that they knew the A to Z of Who, from Autons to Zarbi. Or at least not before Russell T. Davies made it main stream with his fancy high production values and emotional undercurrents.

Doctor Who keeps inspiring us because it's about escape. Not just escaping bug-eyed monsters and zap-gun-wielding killer deathbots, but escaping fear, prejudice, greyness, blinkeredness. It's the greatest fantasy of the mall: travel the Universe in your home. You'd have to be pretty rabid not to admit it's had some rotten moments over the past 47 years including, alas, the incoherent send-off that it gave David Tennant. But a good episode still sparks my imagination, reminds me that there are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in my philosophy. With, if I'm really lucky, some zap-gun-wielding killer deathbots too.

Dominic Maxwell, theatre editor, The Times(boy editor of the Doctor Who fanzin Jagaroth, 1983-84)

Matt Smith's age is a red herring. Doctor Whos appear to be getting young because we are getting older


GRAPHIC: OUTSIDE THE BOX "Imagine devising a show, one of whose mission statements was to terrorise eight-year-olds," Moffat says. Inset, below left, Matt Smith as the new Doctor Who and his assistant Amy Pond, played by Karen Gillan

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  • APA 6th ed.: Billen, Andrew (2010-03-20). Easter, and the Doctor rises again. The Times p. Saturday Review, p. 4.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Billen, Andrew. "Easter, and the Doctor rises again." The Times [add city] 2010-03-20, Saturday Review, p. 4. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Billen, Andrew. "Easter, and the Doctor rises again." The Times, edition, sec., 2010-03-20
  • Turabian: Billen, Andrew. "Easter, and the Doctor rises again." The Times, 2010-03-20, section, Saturday Review, p. 4 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Easter, and the Doctor rises again | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/Easter,_and_the_Doctor_rises_again | work=The Times | pages=Saturday Review, p. 4 | date=2010-03-20 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=26 May 2017 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=Easter, and the Doctor rises again | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/Easter,_and_the_Doctor_rises_again | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=26 May 2017}}</ref>