As part of the BBC's Writers Room project, Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat and his script editor Nick Lambon gave a talk today at the Radio Theatre of Broadcasting House in London. Here's my minutes-old recollection of the event, written across the corridor in the cafe just afterward.
Sarah Dollard's name came up. Her pitch for 'Face the Raven' raised the idea of 'trap streets’ and Moffat saw immediately that they were a Doctor Who idea. One of Moffat’s own episode ideas had been set aside, until one of the production team noted it would be just the thing for this year's Christmas episode. It’s now currently in production.
Moffat, Lambon and the rest of the team actively avoid steering the creative process using authority; it's very much interactive with winning ideas from all quarters bubbling up. Moffat pointed out that time almost demands that approach. In a sense, all telly programmes are like sinking ships, running out of time as soon as they begin production. "You're not going to turn away an idea you know is going to help the ship not sink, whoever it's from." Crew, leads, guests, even those with small parts may have valid input. Moffat pointed out that making these programmes isn’t generally contentious; feedback from crew or actors is usually just matter-of-fact concerns about making things work.
Story arcs and planning
A story "has to work as an episode; the arc can't come too far to the front," said Moffat, noting that he hasn't always achieved this ideal. Late in their first year on Doctor Who, Moffat asked showrunner Russell T Davies what 'Bad Wolf' was. At that point Davies still didn't know. Around the time of 'Journey's End,' Julie Gardner shared with Steven a number of series finale details. Behind her, silently, RTD made it clear that absolutely none of what she was relating was really settled. The 'two buildings' idea at the end of 'The Husbands of River Song' was a very last-minute addition, coming in after the read-through.
Moffat said that any scale of story seems to present the same challenges to him, from the feature-length ‘Day of the Doctor’ to the online short ‘Night of the Doctor.’ "The right size of a story is to have a beginning, a middle and an end" whether it goes on for a few or a lot of pages.
A first draft "is already a repeat," said Moffat, if its pitch was too detailed a miniature. Ideas come and go in the process, so a writer can trap themselves if a pitch is too much of a plan. It’s a sales device that precedes the main process of writing and Moffat sees his own pitching expertise as a potential hindrance to freedom later on.
Noting another approach, Lambon described how writer Toby Whithouse needs to share in detail what he's planning when he delivers a pitch. Of course, a good idea – like Sarah Dollard's above – or a trusted writer can be very brief. Moffat’s trusted colleague Mark Gatiss pitched 'Cold War' with little more than "what if there was an Ice Warrior on a submarine?"
"You'll get more from emphasising a writer’s good points than attacking the bad. There are a million ways to miss a target and few ways to hit it." Both writers agreed it's not about diplomacy, it's about maintaining a focus on what works.
"The tone part of a tone meeting is usually settled early on," said Moffat, with most of the time being devoted to the logistics of realising the script for screen. Making sure the story is understood by those physically building and performing it includes ferreting out any silently 'understood' things which aren't in fact correct. Those sorts of misunderstandings could result in a lot of wasted effort.
Sometimes tone meetings go a bit mad. Moffat and his producer had to leave the 'Silence in the Library' tone meeting 15 minutes early and moments later someone suggested this: instead of leaping dramatically down a tunnel of light to rescue River Song, The Doctor might instead just take a lift. (Moffat then mimed The Tenth Doctor casually whistling in said lift).
The Doctor and the companion attend them with as much of the guest cast as possible. Those in small parts aren’t usually present and Nick Lambon reads many of those parts aloud. He joked that a lot of those seem to get cut afterwards! Moffat riffed on that, remembering one of Nick's predecessors who read the part of the child in 'The Empty Child.' His constant deadpans of "Are you my mummy?" were very worrying. Both writers onstage noted that read-throughs are good refreshers. Loads of drafts can leave them a bit numb and not entirely sure what scenes in their memories are actually still in the script.
Moffat knows the Doctor Who canon as well as any fan. He knows that it doesn't add up so he sees no point in writing with 50 years of baggage. Moffat considers the madman and his box to be quite a self-contained thing to work with. "The format is actually very small.” He doesn’t sweat the petty stuff, noting that “Amy Pond’s timeline makes no sense.” That’s not to say that fans haven’t connected those dots themselves.
To an audience member concerned about spoilers, Moffat said "you're already going to watch the programme. Avoid the trailers! We try to give notice when they'll be on anyway." The important function of trailers is to lure the undecided. Moffat felt he initially gave too little away in last series' trailers, with consequences for ratings. Sharing a bit more did the trick. According to Moffat, writer Richard Curtis advises "put your three best jokes in the trailer. The audience don't have to be surprised when they get to the cinema, they just have to be there."
"Don’t do them!" was Moffat’s half-serious advice. Although every script is unique enough that precious few lessons can be carried forward, "Day of the Doctor" was even more of an unpredictable beast. The introduction of a new Doctor did indeed come at an extremely late point in the process. Moffat couldn’t write this sort of episode without the cast sorted but actors needed a script to see if they could safely turn down other work. Additionally, anniversary specials are a tonally tricky thing to pull off as they must be both a drama and a celebration.
Moffat still seems very engaged with his dream job all these years in and Lambon seems to have developed a good, workable view of the Doctor Who writing process. Now it’s just a wait until December to see what story idea has made it into the Doctor Who Christmas special on BBC One.