This weekend, Peter Capaldi bid farewell to Doctor Who. In the final episode of the current series, the character comes to understand that he is approaching the moment of regeneration that has claimed each of the previous 11 actors to play the Doctor, time-traveller from the planet of Gallifrey.
As this week and last week’s episodes of the BBC show played with the concept of “time dilation” — in which a period that seems like minutes to one person lasts years to another — it is fitting that Capaldi will not finally take his leave until Christmas Day, in the episode that will introduce the world to the next Doctor.
Steven Moffat, writer for seven years, is leaving at the same time. On Friday, Moffat was filming the Christmas special in “a muddy field in Wales”, although it will probably have been transformed into some silvery galaxy by the time fans see it. “I can see the Tardis now,” says Moffat. “And Peter Capaldi standing outside it. I still find that thrilling. But in exchange for that level of enjoyment, there has to be some measure of pain—and that is the savage level of work. So it’s time to move on.”
He is handing over to Chris Chibnall, writer-creator of the ITV crime drama Broadchurch—and the transfer of guardianship of the entire solar system is proving tricky. “Chris and I are trying to have dinner,” says Moffat, “but we think it might only be possible to get a coffee in the diary. We email and phone each other a lot. But it would be nice to do it properly.” The deal with the Christmas script, Moffat explains, is this: “Chris does the last minute of my final episode with the new Doctor—just as I came in with Matt Smith in the final minute of Russell T Davies’ last episode.”
In this week’s finale, the Doctor had his final battle with the humanoid Cyberman (impressively, the show was using the word “cyber” in 1966, long before computers made it standard). Neatly, Moffat’s script was based around various transformations: Pearl Mackie’s Bill, John Simm’s The Master and Capaldi himself all face the possibility of becoming someone—or something—else.
It is a mischievous episode, in which a couple of lines might be taken as references to the Capaldi succession debate. The Doctor seems to suggest that he would like to carry on, and another character asks if the future will be female. (Many politicians and pundits have suggested it is time for a woman in the part.)
Moffat denies any writing between the lines, beyond the fact that Capaldi is deliberately given two sentences spoken by predecessors in the role. He also insists he could not be hinting at what will happen next: “Genuinely, I don’t know. I could know, but I don’t want to. I’ve discovered I’ve had enough of sitting on secrets. They’re so stressful.”
In an interview with Television magazine, Chibnall admitted that he hesitated before taking on the show: “I resisted it for a very long time, and [the BBC] really had to woo me. But in the end, I had ideas about what I wanted to do with it. When I went to them and said ‘This is what I would do’, I actually expected them to say, ‘Ooh, let’s talk about that’, but they said, ‘Great!” Chibnall’s apparent expectation that his concept would be rejected suggests it involves a major shift — but he would say at this stage only that the BBC “was after risk and boldness”.
Could this involve there being more than one Doctor simultaneously (something Moffat has done over single episodes), pursuing one storyline across a whole series — as Broadchurch did — rather than stand-alone episodes? A radical approach is necessary, as ratings have been in steady decline.
Chibnall has insisted he “totally ignored” media and social media advice on the succession, and Moffat says he has not offered any suggestions: “I have no say in it, and wouldn’t expect to have. I assume the deal is still being done.”
Moffat remembers that just after he signed his own deal to run the show, his predecessor, Russell T Davies, published a memoir, The Writer’s Tale, which gave the impression that getting the show on air could sometimes be as uncomfortable as sharing a bed with a Dalek and a Cyberman. “Imagine what it was like reading that book!” says Moffat. “It was like finding the bloodstained diary of the previous occupant of the scary house you’ve just moved into.”
He will not be bequeathing a horror volume to his successor: “I’m trying to be honest but not to frighten Chris. I’ve said, ‘Look, I’ll take you out for a drink once a month, always email or phone me if you have a problem.’ But, most of the time, I’ll just say, ‘It’s supposed to be like that. Don’t worry!’”
JK Rowling admitted to weeping when she finished the last Harry Potter novel, but Moffat felt no special emotion on completing the Christmas Doctor Who: “I wish I had burst into tears. But, no, I felt the usual writer’s disbelief about having got to the end, combined with the fear that it might be [expletive]. There was no end of an epoch feeling.”
Sherlock, the other BBC1 series on which Moffat has been working for seven years, also seems to have concluded, due to doubts over the availability of lead actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.
Whatever Moffat does next, he would like it to be totally different from Sherlock and Doctor Who: “Both those shows feel like constantly writing at the top of your voice. The world’s always going to end, or the crime is the most unsolvable ever. I wouldn’t mind writing about a cat being stuck in a tree and someone saying, ‘Oh, that’s sad!’”
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