Being in charge of a show that is obsessed over by legions of ultra-opinionated fans isn’t easy. Just ask Steven Moffat, who has two such series on his slate, both of which are iconic, beloved British institutions that have sold almost everywhere. Moffat and Mark Gatiss have helmed four twisty, cerebral, award-winning seasons of Sherlock, working around the hectic schedules of stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. And since 2010, Moffat has served as head writer of Doctor Who, ushering in two new Doctors (Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi) and three new companions, and overseeing the 50th anniversary special of the franchise. As he prepares to give up his Doctor Who hat—which will be picked up by Broadchurch’s Chris Chibnall—Moffat tells TV Drama about stewarding two of Britain’s biggest exports.
TV DRAMA: What can you tell us about what will be your last season of Doctor Who?
MOFFAT: Well, nothing! Missy will be back, and Pearl Mackie will be in playing Bill [the Doctor’s new companion]. Aside from that, you’re going to have to wait and see. It’s on its way. It will be good. Lots of monsters!
TV DRAMA: You’ve been working on Doctor Who since its reboot in 2005. Why did you want to leave this year?
MOFFAT: I think the more apposite question is why have I been here so long! It’s the longest I’ve ever done anything. The first four to five years I was one of the writers while getting on with other shows, and then I took it over and it was a full-time job, plus doing Sherlock on top of that. I’m astonished at how long I’ve been doing it! I sort of miss my own job of making up television shows and doing the new things, which is the real job of a writer. I’ve been curating and looking after and worrying about Doctor Who and Sherlock for several years—these two huge franchises that threw up brand-new problems every single day—in addition to writing. You’re never more a writer than when you write something new, you try something different. I miss all that. I miss being, as it were, a proper writer.
TV DRAMA: What sorts of qualities did you look for when casting the new companion for the Doctor?
MOFFAT: The new companion is very interesting. Very much more so than with a new Doctor, it’s a chance to start the show again. With a new Doctor you change the flavor of the show and the style of the show, but essentially it’s the same old Time Lord, with a new face. Nothing begins again. When a new person comes on board the TARDIS, a new person has to learn the rules of time travel and the TARDIS, has to worry about who the Doctor is and slowly decode what he’s up to and whether he’s a hero or a villain. It does feel like a brand-new beginning. The first episode of the new season is specifically designed so that if it were the very first episode of Doctor Who, it would completely introduce you to the show as Pearl is introduced to the show. That’s quite exciting. The place you start from is: Through whose eyes do we want to see the Doctor? What point of view would refresh us about the Doctor? What kind of person would be a good one to get to know him through? That’s where you begin. And you begin a new story. I’m always getting into trouble for saying this: in a way, the Doctor, despite his changing face, doesn’t change that much. He’s not learning and growing. He’s the Doctor and has been for centuries. The person who learns and grows and changes is his best friend, so it becomes their story. As I always put it, the Doctor is the star and the companion is the lead. It’s two different functions. Just as in the Sherlock Holmes stories, Dr. Watson is the main character and Sherlock Holmes is the star.
TV DRAMA: How did you and Mark Gatiss map out the fourth season of Sherlock?
MOFFAT: We started talking about it by accident one day. We were shooting “His Last Vow,” the third episode of the third series. It was raining so we took shelter in one of the production vehicles. As we sat there we came up with the idea of [Sherlock’s] sister, which we’d been kicking around for a while. What if she was the smartest one of the lot, but the one who had no moral compass at all? We knew that Mary [Dr. Watson’s wife] was going to die because Mary doesn’t stay around—that’s just a fact of the Sherlock Holmes story. Dr. Watson, for most of the run of the stories, is a widower. He has to be that. We had to get him there. We knew we were going to do that. We knew we had to tie up whatever apocalypse Moriarty had planned for Sherlock Holmes after his own death. And that wove quite neatly into the introduction of the sister. It was such a fun thing to do that. Everyone thinks he has another brother. How long can we trick [the viewers] into making that fairly simplistic assumption, that because there are two brothers, there must be three? There’s a fairly obvious alternative! So we just went for it. We were careful with our pronouns until the final moment when not only is it revealed he has a sister and she’s evil, but you’ve been watching her for two weeks. That was a brave plan. We didn’t know if we could find anyone to pull that off and make it work. It’s quite a phenomenal performance from Sian Brooke in the several roles she played. As a piece of acting craftsmanship, it’s right up there. It’s extraordinary.
TV DRAMA: I was quite gutted by Mary’s death—and that surprised me. I didn’t realize how much I had grown to like her.
MOFFAT: We didn’t want to introduce her and then just shoot her. It’s awful when you do that. We wanted to introduce her and against everybody’s expectations successfully make her part of the team. Not make you resent her, not make you think she’s an interruption or the nagging wife—actually make you think, She’s really cool, I like her, it’s almost better with the three of them. And then having got her there, [we had to] take her away again. Also, this is not an element that’s in the original story, but it is in our version: it is her legacy that they then live, it’s her saying, This is who you have to be, you have to go and consciously be Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Sherlock Holmes will now wear the silly hat because Mary liked it. It just felt right. You’re always aware that people worry, and I can absolutely see why, about what they call “fridging,” which is where a female character serves no other function than to motivate the male characters. But Mary served many, many more functions than that within our show. She changed and illuminated the path of the show. So I felt we were safe from that. Although we never will be safe from that accusation since they call it fridging even when it doesn’t abide by those rules! You can’t have a rule that says you can’t kill female characters. You just can’t, that’s madness. But you should have a rule that says the death of a female character cannot simply be a device. It has to be an event in its own right. It has to be something important and personal.
TV DRAMA: Any words of advice you’ll be sharing with Chris Chibnall as you prepare to exit Doctor Who?
MOFFAT: Advice, oh Lord! [Laughs] First of all, he’s a very, very experienced showrunner himself, so he doesn’t need advice. The advice I gave him, which I won’t share, was not about how to run Doctor Who but how to have a life while you’re running Doctor Who. The things you must make sure of. He’s a family man, like myself. You’ve got to make sure that you survive it! [Laughs] And the support you’re going to need and what it’s going to be like at 4 in the morning when you’re rewriting some other bastard’s script and not even putting your name on it. What that’s going to feel like. That is what I talked to him about. He has his own ideas about how to do Doctor Who. The advice I’ve given him is all prosaic and all quite, Make sure this happens, make sure you get that and don’t let them do this. I won’t tell you what those things were! [Laughs] But it’s really about, you’ve got to see your kids now and then. You’ve got to go home now and then. You’ve got to keep living. It is a monstrous workload, Doctor Who, monstrous.
TV DRAMA: What you want to do next, post Doctor Who?
MOFFAT: I’ve got one thing I’m quite excited about. I can’t talk about it yet. I haven’t given these things a great deal of thought because I’m still absolutely in the storm of Doctor Who. I’m writing my last finale just ahead of my last Christmas special; they’re both staring me in the face right now. But it’s still full on. It will be full on until the second it’s not. There is no process of leaving. One day you’re doing the job fully and completely, the next day you’re not. It will be as simple as that. And then I’m in a good position to get stuff going if I want to. I’ve got some things I fancy doing. I’d probably like to do some things that are quite different because it does feel like, by accident rather than by design, I’ve been involved in curating two enormous behemoths, two enormous, showbizzy things that everyone in the world wants to have the most interesting opinion about. [Laughs] I’d quite like to do something completely different from that. It was very refreshing the first time I wrote Doctor Who because I’d been writing comedy for years. The first time I wrote for Doctor Who there was a glorious shock of the new, which I enjoyed and which I think ended up stimulating me as a writer. I’d quite like that feeling again.