A sit-down interview with Glasgow alumnus and legendary TV writer, Steven Moffat
Recently, rumours have been re-emerging that Steven Moffat, Glasgow Uni alumnus, who was the showrunner of Doctor Who for six seasons, will be returning to the series. “It would be a bit early for me to return,” Moffat tells The Glasgow Guardian. “It feels, in my advanced years, that I only stopped twelve minutes ago.” During that “amazing, but unbelievably exhausting period”, Moffat was simultaneously helming Doctor Who whilst creating (alongside Mark Gatiss) the BBC phenomenon Sherlock. These two shows are connected in more ways than one. Moffat points out that when the first ever pilot of Doctor Who was being made, its creator, Sydney Newman, told the production team to “make the old guy more like Sherlock Holmes”.
Is there something that threads through Moffat’s work? “I was just thinking over that because I was asked about my favourite children’s book and it was Tom’s Midnight Garden. I think I’ve probably been writing and re-writing Tom’s Midnight Garden throughout my career.” Philippa Pearce’s novel follows the titular Tom who plays each night with another child called Hatty, only she ages much faster than him. At the end of the novel he hugs the now elderly woman as if she were still a little girl. Moffat’s Doctor Who episodes such as ‘The Girl In The Fireplace’ and ‘The Girl Who Waited’ (written by Tom Macrae) touch on similar ideas. Whilst one character can come in and out of someone’s life, the other weary traveller must always take the slower path. Meanwhile, ‘The Abominable Bride’ — an episode of Sherlock that returns to the Victorian age, ends with Holmes staring out of the window, saying “I’ve always known I was a man out of his time.” These episodes are, on the surface, about time, but they are also written without typical chronology. “People are always going on at me about out of sequence narrative,” Moffat laughs, “but what is the right order to tell a story? Whose right order? Which character gets to decide where you cut next? I like non-linear storytelling and time-travel and the occasional twist, I suppose.”
Despite the character Sherlock Holmes holding the record for most film and TV adaptations, Moffat and Gatiss still managed to make their mark by setting the story in modern day London. But there were more subtle changes made as well. The idea was not simply to transplant the characters into the present, “but to say what is that kind of man like now?” In the original stories, Moffat points out, Sherlock Holmes was a “god-fearing man and a stern monarchist. Nowadays that just wouldn’t be possible.” He is colder, less respectful. “I’m not a psychopath,” Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock snaps in the opening episode, “I’m a high functioning sociopath. Do your research.” He’s not morally motivated and he doesn’t want to help people; then again, he never really did. When Moffat was reading the stories as a kid, he was shocked that Sherlock Holmes “wasn’t a nice man, like Doctor Who or James Bond.” He’s “oblivious in his bitchiness,” and that lack of awareness gives Martin Freeman’s John Watson a role. “He can be the person who interfaces between Sherlock and the world. Because Sherlock will just get himself punched in the face if he keeps going.”
Dr. Watson has always been a bit of a pitfall for adaptors. Sherlock looks all that much brighter, if Watson is played as dim. Even Conan Doyle, Moffat notes, is on film referring to Watson as “Mr Holmes’ rather stupid friend.” So their version of John is “tough, a bit sardonic, a bit lost in civilian life. We kept saying to Martin: Dr. Watson is the first man a genius would trust. He’s never told a lie in his life.” Is it John, in the end, who is the main character? “It’s the same with Doctor Who really.
It’s always about the companion. Dr Watson always kind of has been the person to whom the story happens.” He’s the ordinary mortal “engaging in what Basil Rathbone called the Anglo-Saxon Olympus.”
Their chemistry works so well, too well, to the point that many fans were convinced that John and Sherlock would end up together. “I’ve always been slightly bemused by the idea that there’s some mad passionate affair between them,” Moffat admits, “because Sherlock Holmes doesn’t want a mad, passionate affair with anyone. What he wants is to find a headless corpse in a locked room and try to figure it out. If you haven’t figured out that in every version of Sherlock Holmes ever made that sex for Sherlock Holmes is crime solving, then you’re not paying attention.” And, Moffat argues, it is right there in the books. Sherlock Holmes is a delicate instrument that can’t be altered. Of course the word sex isn’t mentioned in Conan Doyle’s stories — “he refers to it as passion. It’s the most deranging impulse that we’re prey to. Sherlock Holmes is right that sex is something that he should barricade the door to.” Though, he adds, “we were hoping to have a dashing sexy Sherlock.”
As Sydney Newman noted, there is something similar about Sherlock and the Doctor. Both so intelligent, so singular, a bit lonely. “Doctor Who is kind of Sherlock Holmes in space,” says Moffat. Does the Doctor have that same selfish streak? “I think he’s completely selfish. Of course he is. He just zooms around the universe entertaining himself and impressing a bunch of much younger friends.” The new generation of Doctor Who, unlike the original, had to grapple with the Doctor’s impact on his young shiny playmates. “We fell in a more emotional era of television,” Moffat explains, “we had to embrace — what’s Amy Pond’s life going to be like later?” Inevitably, the Doctor feels that he’s getting in the way of his companions’ real life, and he says goodbye. For a while. “But he can’t stop himself, he wants a pal.”
The Doctor, like Sherlock, isn’t looking to help people. “He’s just trying to find a nice beach or a good volcano to watch whilst he eats his sandwich.” But the difference is, when he does come across injustice, “he can’t stop himself getting involved. The selfish, joy riding maniac, he puts all that to one side and says I’m going to sort that out. And then I’ll get back to my definitive treatise on steam engines, or whatever I’m doing that week.” Let’s place the characters side by side, at a party, where everybody is perfectly happy. “The Doctor would just go to the party.” Sherlock Holmes, on the other hand, “would be upset because he’d want there to be a case. Not so that he could help people, just so that he could exercise his skills and stave off boredom. The Doctor isn’t like that at all. He’s a thrill seeker, an adrenaline junkie with a moral streak. He’s always the passer by who ends up being the last man standing. That’s his story.”