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'Doctor Who' Mastermind Steven Moffat Talks River Song, Matt Smith and Time Travel

by Maureen Ryan, posted Aug 26th 2011 10:00AM
Who is River Song and what's her connection to other characters on 'Doctor Who'?

Why do stories have to be told in a linear fashion, and what does "linear" even mean?

Do you have to fully understand what's going on in a story -- any story, even one that doesn't involve alien incursions -- in order to enjoy it?

I discussed all those things and more with 'Doctor Who' executive producer and head writer Steven Moffat in anticipation of the show's Saturday return on BBC America.

Truth be told, I was a bit nervous to talk to Moffat. I'd read other interviews in which he seemed -- well, prickly is the wrong word, but (justifiably) unwilling to suffer fools gladly. And when it comes to timey-wimey stories and the kind of puzzle plots that he sometimes creates for 'Doctor Who,' I don't mind admitting that I can be a bit of a head-scratching fool.

What interviews don't really get across is how often he laughs in interviews. Moffat has definite views about storytelling -- that's clear in the wide-ranging discussion below -- but his views are thoughtfully considered and bracingly direct. And as I noted in this April review, the depth and range of 'Doctor Who's' themes may make the venerable yet sprightly BBC America series comparable in some ways to 'Lost,' but it's still a show with pirates, creepy aliens and exciting scares. Moffat still retains the enthusiasm for 'Doctor Who' that can only come from being a lifelong, dyed-in-the-wool fan.

As for the timey-wimey of it all, I found myself agreeing with how Moffat framed the discussion of the show -- it's not necessary to understand where every part of the story is heading in order to enjoy it, if the overall construction is sound. Many 'Doctor Who' stories adhere to the monster-of-the-week format, but even if, in the more mythologically dense outings, the moving parts take a while to come together, there are generally so many things to enjoy that I only rarely come away disappointed (I was let down by the Gangers/Flesh story, but they were the only "off" episodes of the current season, in my view).

In any event, at Casa Stay Tuned, 'Doctor Who' is most definitely a show for all ages; the combination of Matt Smith's lively, varied performance and Moffat's clever, energetic writing has made it an addiction for the whole family.

In the Q&A below, Moffat talks about his approach to the series, the ins and outs of the River Song story, his own future with 'Who' and much more. I also spoke to Matt Smith recently, and that interview -- along with quite a bit of information about the six upcoming episodes of 'Doctor Who' -- is here.

By the way, you may already know that Moffat is executive producer of the PBS Masterpiece series 'Sherlock.' if you're a fan of that show, here's some info on the three episodes that will air in the spring. They are: 'A Scandal in Belgravia' (written by Moffat), 'The Hounds of Baskerville' (written by Stephen Thompson) and 'The Reichenbach Fall' (by Mark Gatiss, and the title isn't a misprint -- it's 'Fall,' not 'Falls'). There's a bonus 'Who' connection in there: 'Being Human' actor Russell Tovey, who was Midshipman Frame in 'Doctor Who's' 'Voyage of the Damned' and 'The End of Time: Part 2,' plays the role of Henry in 'The Hounds of Baskerville.'

All right, back to 'Doctor Who.'

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Maureen Ryan: I'm really interested in an idea you've been exploring this season, that the Doctor's past choices and actions -- all these things are coming home to roost for him. Was that always where you wanted to take the show or the character, or was this something that came to mind after your first season on the show?
Steven Moffat: I think there's just some weird thing that happens with a character like the Doctor. When you bring him back in 2005, he's the lone drifter that no one's ever heard of, but gradually and inevitably, he becomes the greatest hero in the universe. He can stand up in the center of Stonehenge and say, "Come on, do you think you're hard enough?"

And what does the man who just wants to be a drifter, who just wants to just knock around a bit, think about that? And I think within the mad, mad, mad world of 'Doctor Who,' it's not an incredible development that, of course, the Daleks would be sort of wetting themselves when he turns up. Of course, he'd become a legend. Of course, all of those things would be happening.

But why would he be comfortable with that? And you know, he actually abuses this to some degree in [the mid-season finale] 'A Good Man Goes to War,' he abuses the power of it and starts calling in favors and it doesn't work out for him. So that's interesting.

It's the whole idea of "good or evil or sometimes a matter of perspective." Do you still fundamentally think of him as a good man?
I think he's absolutely a good man. But good behavior doesn't always have good consequences. The more expertly you fight your enemy, the better your enemies become at fighting you. If you want to improve your enemies, fight well.

I was speaking with Matt and I said that, if the Doctor was truly a selfless man, he would drop Amy and Rory by the side of the road in front of a little house and say, "Go live your life."
Huh. Keep watching. He's gotten more entangled in their lives than he ever intended to be, which is the story of Amy. At each point, he's thinking, "I can't [leave] now. I can't get out." And that, for me, is the domestic version of it. There are consequences to knowing people, just as there are consequences to being a mighty hero or being perceived as such.

It also seems like living vicariously through them. It's as if their relationship and all those complications are things he likes to be around.
Well, I think he likes young people around. He's like them. Obviously the Doctor is old, but that's thinking in human terms. In his terms maybe he's really quite young. I think what we're playing with is [his] concern that he should have been gone before the wedding. It's a little bit worrying. He's getting involved in their real lives and he never, ever, ever intended to. He tends to be the last fling before the altar and here he is, [redacted, see below].

I'm interested in the conception of the River Song story. In 'Silence in the Library,' did you already know she was going to be the daughter of a companion?
Oh no, no. I mean, it was one possible theory. Why is it somebody who's got such connections, who would that be? Is it just a future companion? What if it's somebody's got a lifelong commitment to the Doctor or his companion? So when I introduced Amy, I kept my options open [and used the name Pond]. I thought I was doing [the name thing] in plain sight and nobody [caught] it for a long while. But I didn't know at the time Karen was going to stay long enough for that story to come off. I didn't know if Alex would keep coming back.

So Plan A held, but there were other ones, including the [Plan B] that maybe River never came back at all and you could just imagine that she knows the 59th Doctor in the far future.

Well, you know, people have been speculating a lot about River Song and whether she can regenerate and whether she's been around a long, long time.
[Noncommittal "Mmmm" noise.]

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I don't ever want the character of River Song to go away.
Well, you're going to see -- I mean, there are answers. We aren't really lost, as it were. You get all the answers in the next [episodes]. Well, just about all. There's always going to be something the Doctor won't tell you.

But you've got lots to resolve, you've got loads of plates spinning in the air at the moment.
And that's OK because some of the plates turn out to be the same plate.

You like to put together these complex puzzles of stories, is that part of the fun for you?
It's one of the fun things. I don't mean it's all the fun. There's always loads of running around and great monsters and great fun. I love the show. Me personally, I think it's a healthy kind of thing if you do think about it afterwards. I want people to be like, "Oh" five minutes later and, "Oh!" five minutes after that -- that's good. I like doing that myself.

[Part of this answer has to do with River Song -- Moffat said something concrete about who she is/was. I don't think this information is a spoiler, but I've put part of this answer at the end of the interview, just in case.]

So when you took over the series from [previous executive producer/head writer] Russell [T Davies], did you have in mind that this was where you were going to go in your second season?
Oh no, it's never quite... I'd get very bored if I knew everything I was going to do. You know, really and truly, 'Doctor Who' is episode by episode. Each episode has got to be a blockbuster in it's own right, a movie of the week in its own right. This is the most arc-driven we've ever been, I would say. And even with that, it's still closer to the anthology model than it is to anything else. Each story is its own thing, there's just strands running through it.

I think all these relationships you've built up have made the show really rich. The stakes are really high for everyone.
It makes you feel you've moved on a bit. Otherwise you just think, "Are they still just holding hands and running out of the TARDIS?" You don't mind them doing that for a while, but if that's all they're doing two years later, you're thinking, "You are really fatuous if you haven't changed at all."

One of the things I really appreciate about your era of 'Doctor Who' is that there's a married couple, they had a daughter, they have a real relationship with real complexity. It's still quite kid-friendly, but it's something that has those deeper and more complicated and more painful aspects of life.
Children understand families, you know, that's what they live in. Children are very rooted in families. So it's more than kid-friendly. In Britain, it's absolutely thought of as a children's program first, even though if you look at the stats, 80 percent of the audience is adults.

I think you're deepening the experience for adults, in some ways, and maybe that's why 'Doctor Who's' audience in the U.S. is growing.
There's this general thought that it has to be simple or simplistic to appeal to children. You don't. Look at what they're reading. Look at Harry Potter. Twelve-year olds, 11-year olds, 10-year olds, they are well capable of complicated, deep things. Times have changed.

I don't know if you are a fan of 'Lost' or shows like 'Fringe,' but there's this very interesting idea that those shows explore and that 'Doctor Who' explores with the Silence -- the idea that identity and memory are deeply linked and the scary thing is that those things are malleable. Outside forces can change who you are and what you are if they tamper with your memories. Is that something you consciously think about when you're writing, or is it something that you feel is in the air or the culture?
I think it's in the air and the culture. I don't think, "How can I write about identity and memory?" But I'm sure a man who changes history for a living -- that memory's going to be interesting, right? Anyone's that has thought about their life, and how their own memories conflict with their nearest and dearests' memories, has wondered if just being you gives you the true story of you. What really happened? It always worries me that I've forgotten most of my life. Most days, I've completely forgotten.

And what you remember is the "spin" version of what happened. Your version of it.
Yeah, you are the spin-doctor version of yourself.

We keep other people around to keep us honest about what we remember, maybe.
Or keep other people around to collude in our preferred version.

Exactly. So with Matt and his performance, do you still feel like you're discovering places to go with him?
Well I think if you thought you weren't, why are you still doing it? We'll be done when we have haven't got anything left. I think he's a limitless actor. He's incredibly inventive, compassionate and clever. So I don't think we're anywhere near the limit of what he can do. But again, that's not really how I approach the show. I approach it as, what's the most fun we can have this week?

But when you sit down to do these movies of the week, do you think "Hey, pirates!" Do you think of the villain, do you think of the setting...
I think "Oh, pirates, wa-hey!"

But you know, these longer arced things, you have an idea for where they're going.
If you actually look at the number of minutes we devote to an arc plot, compared to our story of the week, it's heavily weighted in favor of the story of the week. In fact, the biggest counter to that would be the opening two-parter [for season 6], because there's a lot of arc stuff in that. But even with that, if that's all you ever saw, you know, there's a whole alien invasion, there's a new monster, and [much of the story is] resolved.

But it varies. Sometimes you think, "That'd be a cool villain to turn up." Sometimes you just think, "I want to do pirates."

You know, there's now a Weeping Angels play set, they've kind of become these iconic villains. I'm stealing this question off someone who asked it at Comic-Con -- what goes into creating a good villain?
I think probably it's always the story that gives you the villain. The Daleks were a one-off villain when they first came out. The Weeping Angels were a one-off villain. I think it's accidental. You can't sit there and say, "I'm going to assemble the perfect 'Doctor Who' villain.' I never, ever think that.

You think of a story, you think of an image and it's not you who decides it's a classic villain, the audience decides. They decide whether the show is a hit or not, they decide whether Doctor's good or not, and decide which villains is the classics. And so you certainly don't give a second's thought to inventing like that.

I always think it's going to be great. Sometimes, rarely, I'm right. [laughs] I wouldn't do it unless I thought it was fantastic. And that goes for my failures as well as my successes.

Well, part of the reason 'Blink' was such a success is because I can sit someone down to watch it and even if they've never heard of 'Doctor Who,' they can still get it.
It's amazing that they do, because actually it depends in your already knowing who the Doctor is.

But you explain the premise in one sentence.
Just about. You know, "It's a character for whom time travel is a given." I think if something's good, people won't mind if they don't completely understand it. Who says we have to understand everything? You either enjoy it or you don't. I didn't understand a word of 'The West Wing' but I loved it all the same.

Right. It's like, you know you love your children, but you don't understand everything about that love.
Or even what's going on in any given day -- I understand about an eighth of it. It doesn't matter. Do you like it or don't you?

The Doctor regularly doesn't understand the whole picture. He understands enough to defeat the monsters and get out free, but frequently you see that he doesn't actually know everything.

For instance, in one episode I wrote, 'The Girl in the Fireplace,' he never knows why the spaceship was after Madame Pompadour. It was revealed to the audience but he never actually finds out. Who needs to know everything? That's not storytelling.

But there's a completist aspect to being a TV fan for some people these days.
Yeah, but that's a minority of the audience. It's a weird thing to worry about. If you ask, why was your lunch late today? Why was there a traffic jam? Why does that guy over there have egg on his shirt? You don't know what in the hell is going on. Why would you know in a story?

With River Song and her meeting the Doctor "backwards," is that important to the character? Is that something that needs to be explained?
When she says that, she's being poetic, to some degree. The broad sweep of how she meets the Doctor is out of sequence. It's not necessarily always exactly out of sequence. It's been taken to mean, by some people, but that every time they meet, it's the exact reverse. We already know that's not true. And we've seen it not be true.

But look at it from River's point of view -- it feels as though every time she meets him [it's backwards], and she knows the day is coming when he won't know her at all. There's an adventure she hasn't had yet where the Doctor doesn't know her. She knows it's coming. She is generalizing: "Most of the times I meet him, generally he's younger and knows me slightly less well."

Will we ever know why that was the case? Does it matter for her character?
Why should we always meet people in the right order?

I don't know, it might help time-travel dummies like me.
But who says you would [meet people that way]? It's actually highly improbable that if you traveled around in time -- why would you meet people in the right order? What law, what ticking clock is making that [happen]?

There's no reason. I guess linear storytelling may be overrated.
I think all stories are actually linear. It's just that, what version of linear do you want? If this hotel caught on fire, we'd all escape from it and we'd all know our own story and secrets, but the whole story of it, you only find out later.

There is no God's-eye view of it. When you do a God's-eye view of the story and tell it that way, it's a very false perspective. It's never like that. Events are never experienced by everybody at once; events are experienced by one person at a time, and you add it all together later and try to stitch a story out of it. What is the right order to tell a story in? Is it the order in which it happened? The order in which it happened to that person? Do you provide answers before you ask questions? All that stuff.

At Comic-Con, the panelists were mentioning some of their dream 'Doctor Who' writers, and obviously you had Neil Gaiman write 'The Doctor's Wife.' Do you have any dream writers you'd like to bring on board? Is that in the cards at all?
You've got to be careful with it because, to be honest, a lot of experience in television writing is necessary to do 'Doctor Who' properly. And getting someone who's famous for a different genre has always meant and will always mean doing quite a big rewrite. You also have to know 'Doctor Who.' And then it's a weird combo -- horror (early in the evening), adventure, chiller, mystery, aimed at children. It's a weird set of things.

It seems like you have a plan for where to take the character and where to take the show. But you've got 'Sherlock' on your plate as well. Do you see yourself staying with 'Doctor Who' for a long time?
I haven't got any kind of plans to leave. I take it one [season] at a time. 'Doctor Who' on its own is an incredible workload, astonishing. And to have that and to have 'Sherlock,' yeah, it's savage. I'd like to get out before it kills me. But and it's not killing me at the moment. I'm loving doing it, so I have no immediate plans to leave.

But at the same time, the thing about 'Doctor Who' is, when it is time to go, you want to make sure it's looked after. You don't want to be the last one. I want it to go on and triumph long after I stop.

Moffat is famously anti-spoilers, so I don't consider what follows to be a spoiler, considering he was willing to talk about this topic quite readily and in a matter-of-fact way. But on the off chance that, for some viewers, knowing this information might be detrimental to their enjoyment of future episodes, here's a small part of our conversation, in which Moffat confirms something that many 'Doctor Who' fans no doubt already assumed about River Song:

Moffat: Oddly enough, If you want to understand 'Doctor Who,' always watch it like a child. The children decode it like that because they are not distracted. My little boy got who River was at the end of 'Day of the Moon.' It's dead obvious, if you're not worried about, "Is that little regenerating girl the Doctor's daughter?" [or speculation like that].

Look at it from a child's perspective -- there's a mysterious woman and a mysterious little girl and a mysterious pregnancy. Duh. Instantly, my little boy Louis said, "The regenerating little girl [at the end of 'Day of the Moon'] -- that must be River Song, obviously."

So, River Song can regenerate? Is she like the Doctor, she can regenerate any number of times?
Well, you're going to see the answers to that, but we do already know that little girl was River and that she can regenerate.

In another part of our conversation, he called Rory and Amy "in-laws." I thought that was interesting, given the title of the season 6 finale (which is at the end of this post). Of course, there's no reason that those two things would be connected, that's pure speculation on my part, and he may have meant "in-laws" in the sense of "family complications." In any event, here's the full version of an exchange above.

It also seems like living vicariously through them. It's as if their relationship and all those complications are things he likes to be around.
Well, I think he likes young people around. He's like them. Obviously the Doctor is old, but that's thinking in human terms. In his terms maybe he's really quite young. I think what we're playing with is [his] concern that he should have been gone before the wedding. It's a little bit worrying. He's getting involved in their real lives and he never, ever, ever intended to. He tends to be the last fling before the altar and here he is, you know, with in-laws [laughs].

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August 28 2011 at 12:43 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

Wonderful in-depth interview, Mo. Thanks so much for feeding the anticipation for tomorrow's return episode.

The article reads as if you had a great rapport with Moffat. I was especially interested in the questions about River living backwards. I do tend to at least try to watch the show with that child-like sense of wonder/acceptance, but the "timey wimey" aspects worm their way into my brain; I sometimes feel as though it's trying to manipulate a virtual Rubik's cube. It's fun, as long as it doesn't become an obsession. ;)

And Craig, the teenage joyrider is an excellent metaphor! Love it!

August 26 2011 at 8:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Craig Ranapia

"Obviously the Doctor is old, but that's thinking in human terms. In his terms maybe he's really quite young."

Quite - we don't actually know that much about the Time Lords, and I've always been quite tickled by the idea of The Doctor being being this precocious teenager who stole a car, went on a joy ride and never stopped. :)

August 26 2011 at 5:36 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Excellent interview as always Mo, thank you (I used to read you regularly when you were at the Chicago Tribune.) I am working on my Master's thesis about pop culture, focusing specifically on "Doctor Who", and will use this column - as well as your interview with Matt Smith - in my paper.

Keep 'em coming!

August 26 2011 at 10:47 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to KNMuniz's comment
Mo Ryan

Thanks so much! Glad you found me in my post-Tribune life. Very cool about using these interviews in your paper. Thanks!

August 26 2011 at 3:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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