For almost any British schoolboy, and more than a few schoolgirls, the idea of being handed the reins of Doctor Who would seem like a dream come true.
For screenwriter Steven Moffat (Jekyll, Coupling) it is just as exciting, now the Executive Producer of the long-running sci-fi franchise. He has been a fan of the show since he was a child, as he explains to TV Tonight.
“It was such an exciting show and I became a huge fan, and remain a huge fan,” he says. “When it came back I was very keen to get a shot writing for it, when Russell (T. Davies) was running it. And that went well. So it’s an incredibly exciting job.
“I think anyone doing this job would have to say it’s a career highlight. A dream come true, yes.”
With Matt Smith as the new Doctor and Karen Gillan as his companion Amy Pond, Moffat can effectively refresh the franchise. Yet at the same time, such moves could put a fervent fanbase at risk. As the writer of some acclaimed episodes, most feel he is the perfect man to inherit a television legacy.
The success of the Who brand by the BBC has even spawned other fantasy dramas in the UK, in a genre that is frequently dominated by American television.
“I have to say the shows that have come along since Doctor Who have been great,”declares Moffat. “I think Primeval’s a great show, and Merlin and Robin Hood. I’m very happy that kind of show’s being made again. I think they got very dreary for a long time with lots of boring grown up shows with people arguing in the rain. It’s good to see big, mad series that children will remember for the rest of their lives.”
So as the custodian of all things Who, does he have some shifts in store that will distinguish the series from the Davies-era?
“Yes, but I’m not going to tell you, am I?” he says.
“The whole point of that journey is you don’t know where you’re going.
“There’s been far too much ‘Spoilering’ in Doctor Who. Yes there are places where you’re going to go, but I’m damned if I’m going to tell you where they are!
“Let’s not blow the punchlines. Yes there’s big stuff that’s going to happen and it’s going to change and you’ll be surprised but you won’t get a word out of me.
“There’s an awful lot of coverage in the press which is wonderful, and very exciting for us. But I’m always in despair when plot twists are revealed or given away. We’ve been very successful at playing it very close to our chest with this series and we will continue to do so.”
Such is the fascination with the Who brand that both media and fans alike are constantly on the lookout for news, from plot moves to location shooting to guest stars. Moffat says actors are asked to keep details confidential.
“We don’t have executive power over what they do in their individual life. We ask them not to give stuff away, but it’s not like state secrets,” he says. “We’re just trying not to spoil the show for the kids, really. It’s not like we can sue them or anything. But it’s not a grim and terrible process, and we’re not keeping secrets from the audience, we’re keeping secrets for the audience.
“It’s the exact same equivalent as not blurting out the punchline halfway through the joke. We want to keep it exciting.”
For the most part this simple, but effective, strategy achieves the desired outcome.
“It’s quite easy to get trust in that sense. We’re clear about what we’d like from people and we tend to get it. There are newspapers who will do anything to spoil us but we’ve so far managed quite well to preserve the surprises that are coming, which is all we really what we want to do.”
So far Matt Smith and Karen Gillan have been rapturously received in the UK, allaying initial concerns that the casting of the Smith, at 27, might have pitched the show at a younger audience. A defensive Moffat scoffs at suggestions he would take over the show and knowingly seek to reduce the size of the audience.
“The fans might have that worry, that we might be trying to appeal to children, but the rest of the audience would probably understand that is Doctor Who‘s primary domain,” he says.
“As for ‘going younger’, what does that mean? He’s still 900. He just doesn’t look 900. He’s no less qualified to play a 907 year old than anyone else who has played The Doctor.”
Finally, Moffat is also busy overseeing production on Sherlock which he has co-written with Mark Gatiss. The series is intended for broadcast in the UK autumn and later in Australia on the Nine Network.
“It’s Sherlock Holmes set in the modern day, but not by freezing anything, we just relocate the stories into the modern day. I think it’s absolutely brilliant. The way the characters map onto the modern world … it’s so easy, so effortless to make it work. I think people are going to love it.”
Doctor Who airs 7:30pm Sunday on ABC1 and is available at 12am this Saturday on iView.