This Saturday, April 17th, BBC America will air the first episode of an all-new season of Doctor Who, and the first episode of a new era – for the show no longer stars David Tennant. Tennant retired from the role last season, regenerating into the new Doctor, played by Matt Smith. But longtime fans worried that Smith's youthful appearance might indicate he lacks the necessary acting chops can rest assured. Having seen his first episode ("The Eleventh Hour" – a cheeky nod to the fact that Smith is, yes, the eleventh Doctor), I already prefer Smith in the role to Tennant. He's witty when he needs to be, with laser-accurate comic timing, but he never goes over the top or into histrionics; and he can switch gears in a cold second to bring gravitas to the show, and a wisdom beyond his years. Of course it doesn't hurt that his new companion Amy Pond (played by Karen Gillan) is cute as a bug's nose… Still, much of the credit for this incarnation of Doctor Who's success must go to new showrunner Steven Moffat (replacing executive producer Russell T. Davies). Moffat penned some of the best – and most frightening episodes – of the Tennant years, among them the award-winning "The Girl in the Fireplace" and "Blink". And if "The Eleventh Hour" is any indication, a new Golden Age of Who begins now. We sat down with Moffat yesterday, while he was in New York promoting the new season, and we discussed the role of horror in Who, the return of his most terrifying creation – the Weeping Angels of "Blink" – and how he recruited no less a writer than Neil Gaiman. Read our full conversation after the jump.
Your scripts have often been among the more macabre, gothic ones of the new Doctor Who era. You've said before that you were a fan of the show when you were growing up. Were you particularly fond of its more horrific episodes, such as those produced by Philip Hinchcliffe (and starring Tom Baker) during his tenure with the show in the ‘70s?
I loved all that. I think it's a really good note for Doctor Who to hit when it does it well. I love all that stuff. But it's not the only flavor of Doctor Who I like. I mean I love "City of Death," which is comedy, I love the [Peter] Davison stuff. I even, in an unfashionable way, love some of the later Sylvester McCoy stuff. I think Doctor Who's at its best when it's broad. It should be dark when it's dark, it should be funny when it's funny. The thing is that Doctor Who should always be full-blooded. So if it goes for gags they should be big gags. If it's gonna have frights, it should have big frights.
How have you envisioned this new era? Is there a tone or sensibility that you wanted to bring to it now that it stars Matt Smith; that would distinguish it from the show when it was produced by Russell T. Davies and starring David Tennant?
Well, it never occurred in my mind to worry about what it is from previous years. Doctor Who doesn't change with every new star or every new writer, it changes with every story. Literally every story is different in Doctor Who, every episode is a variation from the previous one. It's a whole new movie. I suppose, just as a matter of automatic sensibility, this year is more of a dark fairy tale. Although obviously "dark" in relation to "fairy tale" is frankly redundant, because fairy tales are tremendously dark; or they are until Disney makes a movie of them. [Laughs.] They're fairly cleaned-up fairy tales. But that's the lightest touch really. My biggest concern is that each story should be realized in the perfect way for each episode. Each story has its own rulebook, thirteen times a year.
Do you find Matt's age, since he's young – as is Karen -- makes the threats that the characters face more real, because there's a new vulnerability there?
No, I don't think that really changes much. Maybe a bit with Karen, because within the story, she's a very young girl and what's the Doctor doing taking this young girl into space? (Actually Karen is no younger than most of us.) But it doesn't change anything about the Doctor – he's still nine hundred years old, and he's still very much the Doctor. So it's not like he's suddenly more vulnerable. I mean, I think the Doctor's always a bit vulnerable because he's bonkers. But if there's one thing that brings vulnerability to the Doctor it's not his youth, it's the fact that the Doctor's a bit insane. He's a little bit mad. You don't quite know what he's going to do next because he won't remember that he's in danger. He'll trip over his own feet. I suppose [Matt's reminiscent] of the Patrick Troughton and Tom Baker Doctors, where you know them but you can't quite rely on them to do everything right, because they're a bit touchy.
Now that you're running the show, do you find your sensibility differs much from Russell's?
We've never exchanged a word of disagreement about the show. I suppose we're only as different as the stories are. But he wrote "Midnight" and I wrote "Girl in the Fireplace", so it's not like we're so different all the time. I don't know. It's for others to say. I think the show does feel different this year – there's a different Doctor, there's a whole lot of differences. I think it feels new rather than different. I think it feels absolutely like Doctor Who, but at the same time like "the new Doctor Who".
One episode that horror fans are most excited about deals with the return of the Weeping Angels from "Blink". Bringing them back in a two-part episode is a somewhat bold choice, since in their first episode they were so fresh and surprising. Were you at all fearful that element of surprise would be missing, and render them less effective, if you brought them back?
I had no fear of it. You can't make good decisions by being frightened. But when we did the first one, I didn't think they were gonna come back again. I thought they were a good spooky idea. But it's part of the ecology of Doctor Who that when you've got an idea that goes over as big as this one did you've got to bring them back. I had a bunch of ideas that I never managed to squeeze into "Blink", scary-angel things that I'd like to try. So I just thought it was worth it – people would like to see them again. I think the [new] two-parter – "The Time of Angels" and "Flesh and Stone" – is an absolute stormer; I think it's an absolute belter of a two-parter, and I'm really thrilled with it. The thing is, it's so completely different from "Blink" – in style, tone, pace, approach – that it rarely feels like a sequel to it at all. Hopefully it won't feel like a sequel to anything. It just feels like a cracking good Doctor Who yarn, which I genuinely think it is. A great example of how to do a sequel right is probably Aliens coming after Alien. I think this is the equivalent of that. It's a brand new use of the same monster.
You've an impressive roster of writers lined up. Neil Gaiman, for example, will pen an episode of the show's next season. How did you come to work with Gaiman on the show? Can you hint at what his episode might involve?
Well, obviously I'm not gonna tell you what the story's gonna be, because it will be a long time before you see it. Best to keep it fresh. [Laughs.] I knew Neil as far as email exchanges went, and we've been out for dinner a couple of times. He's a big fan of the show. I think he was a shoe-in for it in the sense that if you're familiar with Neil Gaiman's work, you can tell he's a Doctor Who fan, just from his work. It made sense to go in that direction. He was keen, I was keen. That wasn't a hard sell. That was one of the easier hirings. We were happy to have him on board.
In real life, what's your greatest fear?
Oh, I think I'm boring with my greatest fears. Anything happening to my children. When I was a kid I was frightened of shop window dummies. Doctor Who's had some vicious ones! [Laughs.]