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'Doctor Who' exec producer and head writer Steven Moffat on the show's return

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Steven Moffat
Landmark/PR Photos

If Steven Moffat was kidnapped by aliens, then British drama would be in deep trouble, given that the future plot lines for two of the country’s most popular shows — Doctor Who and Sherlock — are housed in the writer-producer’s precious brain. Tonight, however, it is the past that will occupy fans of the returning Doctor Who as the season premiere finds Matt Smith‘s titular time traveler journeying back to 1969 America to battle an extraterrestrial menace with help from Amy Pond (Karen Gillan), Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill), River Song (Alex Kingston), an ex-FBI agent (Mark Sheppard from Battestar Galactica) and, uh, President Richard Nixon.

Earlier this week, Moffat talked to EW about the new season, Sherlock, and late Doctor Who actress Elisabeth Sladen:

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Are you on Sherlock or Doctor Who duties at the moment?

STEVEN MOFFAT: I’m on both Sherlock and Doctor Who at the moment. Sherlock is gearing up, we just started pre-production. They were putting up the Baker Street set at the studio this morning and in the next studio we were shooting Doctor Who. We’re on the thirteenth episode.

Why did you decide to shoot the Doctor Who premiere in America?

Because we had an idea for a story set in America. It wasn’t really about breaking the American market, which I think everyone assumes. I mean, an American setting is not exactly something Americans are deprived of. You’ve got lots of shows like that. I haven’t ever watched The West Wing and wished it was set in the House of Commons. We had an idea, and it seemed cool, so we did it.

I never thought I would see Richard Nixon depicted as a sci-fi hero’s sidekick.

Well, obviously you’ve not been watching Futurama.

Good point.

[Laughs] My whole idea was to set it in the year of the moon landing. I thought let’s get the TARDIS in the Oval Office. So I looked up who was president then. And it was bloody Nixon! I thought, “Oh, him! The rubbish one!” But then I thought it was actually quite fun. Because normally the Doctor meets the great triumphs of history. So it would be quite fun if he met one of the absolute flops.

A lot of fans are looking forward to this season’s Neil Gaiman-scripted episode. What can you say about that?

It’s called “The Doctor’s Wife.” I can’t say very much actually because the whole gimmick behind that show — and it’s a very clever gimmick — will be unveiled in the opening minutes. I literally can’t talk about it without giving it away, which I don’t want to do. It’s a lovely, magical, mad episode.

Writing a TV show is a very different discipline to writing a comic. Did you have to hold Gaiman’s hand a little?

He would bring his own estimate of that. I think everybody — and I don’t think Neil would argue with this — everybody who comes onto the show gets a fright at just how difficult it is. You assume you know it, until you try to write it. Then you realize, it really is a monster. I’ve written an awful lot of them now and I still find it shockingly difficult. I think everyone who comes on has that moment of “I didn’t think I’d be working this hard.”

Are there any other comic book writers you’d like to have work on the show. What about Alan Moore, for example?

I hope I won’t become hated by geeks everywhere, but I don’t really know comic books all that well. I know Neil as a novelist. Isn’t it terrible? I should be shot!

I’m sure I’m not the only Doctor Who viewer who, when Arthur Darvill’s character was introduced, thought, “Why do we need this guy?” But he’s really become a fan favorite over the past year.

The reason people are so exuberant about him is partly because Arthur’s brilliant. But also there’s nothing more enjoyable than an unexpected hit. If you don’t expect to like someone and then you do, that’s an incredibly exciting moment. Last year, no one really expected to like Matt as the Doctor because everyone had been so in love with David [Tennant]. So he became a breakout hit. It was that sort of shock: “I like him after all.” And then you have this perfect couple, the Doctor and Amy on the TARDIS, and then you introduce Arthur and [fans] think, “Oh this is going to be awful.” But actually he’ll come in and steal the scene.

We lost Elisabeth Sladen this week, who played one of the Doctor’s former companions. Could you talk a little bit about her?

I barely knew her [personally]. I’d just meet her at Welsh parties and things, really. Of course, I knew her very well from watching her Who work all those years ago. It’s just a horrible tragedy. She was such a nice lady. She hadn’t really aged at all, as far as I could see. I just assumed she was going to live forever.

Dr Who Smith

I’ve seen the first two episodes of the season and they do have some definitely cinematic moments. Do you have any big screen ambitions for Doctor Who?

Only that I’d like the television series to be, in your word, “cinematic.” To be absolutely honest with you, I’d rather be making 13, 14 movies a year than just one every two years. Cinema is so slow and boring compared to television.

Moving on to Sherlock, you’re stealing Martin Freeman back from The Hobbit to play Watson again on the show?

No! No! No, no, no, no. We are lending Martin Freeman to The Hobbit, let’s get that the right way round.

Do you have a good relationship with Peter Jackson? I know you worked on the script of the Jackson-produced Adventures of Tintin.

I know him. I don’t know him that well. We’ve worked together. I’ve met him a few times. That’s what it amounts to. But that wasn’t the negotiation. Martin was very committed to being in Sherlock and wouldn’t have been in The Hobbit unless Sherlock could be accommodated. It’s not exactly a small deal these days, Sherlock.

I didn’t mean to imply that it was.

[Laughs] No, I’m just keeping the British end up, mate!

Do you know how much of your writing is still in Tintin?

I’m sure hardly any. I haven’t kept track. I now don’t know which bits are secret and what aren’t. So, I’m very circumspect. I mean, I was the one that left. I was the baddie there. They didn’t sack me, or anything. I left to do Doctor Who and they were incredibly kind and decent about that. They could have kicked up more of a legal fuss about it, frankly. But they were really gentlemanly about it and they were lovely people to work with. I was chatting the other day with Edgar [Wright, the director of Shaun of the Dead, who took over writing duties on Tintin, together with Attack the Block filmmaker Joe Cornish]. He said he’d seen a bit of it and it was looking absolutely beautiful. The truth is, I’ve been used to running my own show for ages. So maybe it was better to go back to that.

Read more:

‘Doctor Who’ cast members Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill preview the new season: ‘A main character will die in the first episode’

‘Doctor Who’: Alex Kingston talks playing River Song, and whether she’d ever pose naked with a Dalek

Elisabeth Sladen: An appreciation of the ‘Doctor Who’ actress

‘Doctor Who’ actress Elisabeth Sladen dies at age 63

Matt Smith previews the new season of ‘Doctor Who’: ‘We learn so much about the characters’