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'Doctor Who' Producer Steven Moffat On 50th Anniversary And Casting The Doctor

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DOCTOR WHO 50TH
Matt Smith and David Tennant in 'The Day of the Doctor' | BBC America

How do you build a character who lasts for 50 years and is beloved around the world?

Simple: You don't mess with the Doctor.

At least that's the advice of Steven Moffat, who has been executive producer and showrunner of "Doctor Who" for the last few years.

The Doctor, who has traveled the galaxy sorting out problems for 50 years, has essentially been the same guy from the beginning, Moffat says. According to him, a wise "Doctor Who" writer does not tinker with the basics of the character -- his irreverence and intelligence, his energy, his darkness, and his ability to care and lead and love. The key is simply to think up good stories, and then stand back and let a charismatic actor bring a new take to the thousand-year-old time traveler every few years.

"At the beginning, you keep it simple," Moffat said in an interview conducted at San Diego Comic-Con last July. "I always say that with any character: keep it simple. Don't give them a list of attributes. Nobody you ever met is a list of attributes. Nobody is shy all the time. Nobody is funny all the time. So you just keep it dead simple. The Doctor is the Doctor, and as the actor pushes it in different directions, you start following."

A new actor -- respected character actor Peter Capaldi -- will start pushing the character in his own new direction when he takes over for Matt Smith at the conclusion of the annual "Doctor Who" Christmas special in December. After two relatively young Doctors, it will be interesting to see a more mature and very crafty actor take on the role. Capaldi's casting actually brings the show full circle: The First Doctor, William Hartnell, was 55 when the show debuted in 1963, and Capaldi is 55 as well. The last few Doctors have been old souls in relatively young bodies, but a midlife Doctor with youthful energy and an experienced visage could be an interesting change of pace.

When will we see a female Doctor or a person of color in the role? That issue has been put on the back burner for the moment with the casting of Capaldi, and Moffat didn't address that topic in the following interview (though he has, of course, been asked about it).

One of the good things about the "Doctor Who" franchise is that change is inevitable. Showrunners leave and the stars always move on, but the trusty blue TARDIS keeps going. As long as the actor in the lead role has that elusive spark that all memorable Doctors have, the show will thrive. The whole point of "Doctor Who" is to take us to places we've never been, and if the BBC wants to keep the show going another 50 years, mixing things up to keep the franchise fresh and compelling won't be a choice, it'll be a necessity. Sci-fi fans are certainly a varied bunch, and to see that reflected in the character would be exciting. All he or she needs is an irreverent smile, a ton of charisma, ripping stories to tell and a sonic screwdriver in hand, and the "Doctor Who" franchise will be just fine.

When this interview was conducted, Moffat, who is also an executive producer of the hit show "Sherlock," hadn't yet chosen the next Doctor. But he discussed the origins of "Doctor Who" (which are celebrated in the TV movie "An Adventure in Space and Time"), and he talked about the difficulty of making the 50th anniversary special, "The Day of the Doctor," which airs Saturday.

He also definitively answers the question of whether James Bond is a Time Lord.

This interview, which was conducted in roundtable style with other journalists, has been edited and condensed.

What's the key to casting someone in the role of the Doctor?

It's the actor. The Doctor, to a greater extent than people realize, is just the same all the time, with one or two catchphrases here and there that happen to evolve. You write the Doctor the same, and you give it hopefully to a brilliant actor, and they take it in their direction. I remember when I was casting Matt, I got hold of the scripts from the first season of Tom Baker [who played the Fourth Doctor], and I was looking at them and thinking, "It's exactly the same. It's exactly the same part." Tom Baker makes him a different man. Matt Smith makes him different. So it's driven by that. It's very much about letting the actor carve their own space to do it.

The really important thing is that you believe the same person is inside him, rather than you're creating a different character. He's not a different character, he's exactly the same person, but he's changed his face, and therefore his personality changes a bit. But then your personality changes when you put on a different jacket, so imagine putting on a different body.

So what's the secret ingredient to playing the role?

Just being a star. "Doctor Who" is a star vehicle. It's an odd thing in that it becomes a different person's star vehicle every few years. It was David Tennant's star vehicle, then it was Matt Smith's, and now it will be somebody else's. You're just looking for that person you can't take your eyes off.

The one thing is -- and I don't know if this is always true, and I don't know if it will always be true -- but it tends to be that particular actor's only swashbuckling role. They don't tend to play James Bond as well. I can't imagine anyone will ever be "Doctor Who" and James Bond.

Some have said James Bond must be a Time Lord.

He's not. It's a succession of different actors playing the same part. I've worked it out. [laughs]

What made Matt Smith work so well in the role?

There is something about Matt in particular in the part, but also in general: [Matt] combines old and young. He just has that. There's something quite boffin-y about him -- he's a hipster boffin, so that's irresistible. The Doctor is over a thousand years old, so his apparent age is a lie. You want there to be mixed signals, I suppose. The William Hartnell Doctor, although he's an old man, he's quite childish. So there's always that contradiction.

Also, the main thing was, to be honest, if you saw [Matt's] audition, he was just bloody brilliant. Just straightforwardly terrific, an absolute star. Bizarrely, I saw him for the part of Dr. Watson in "Sherlock" just a few days before I met him for [the "Doctor Who" audition]. He gave a terrific audition, completely wrong for the part. But the casting director said, "He's going to be huge, that boy. He's going to be massive." And you could see that. He's a star. When he's in the room, you look at Matt.

Will the next season continue this recent theme of drawing attention to the Doctor's name, or his lack of one?

I just like the fact that possibly the most well-established fictional character in television doesn't have a name, and the title of the show reminds you of that on a weekly basis. So it's fun. Actually the Doctor's name was revealed in the old series, but everyone just rejected it: "No. It's not Theta Sigma." The entire audience just turned away fastidiously and said, "Don't be silly." So it's funny, the audience decides what's canonical.

What was it like making the 50th anniversary special?

It was unbelievably tough, to be honest with you. Making it was extraordinarily difficult, because we were trying to push the boat out a bit. As ever, we didn't have enough money. We were making a feature-length "Doctor Who" on the schedule and budget of an [hour-long episode]. We were doing it in 3-D on a budget for 2-D. As ever with "Doctor Who," we just didn't have that money. But you will not see that on screen -- it looks amazing.

So there was extra pressure due to the anniversary?

There's always pressure with "Doctor Who." There really is. I'm always wary of the episodes where you announce in advance, "This is a very important episode," because it's up to the audience whether it's a very important episode. "Blink," which I wrote several years ago for David Tennant, has become my calling card. That was a filler episode to get round a scheduling problem. So I'm very wary of saying, "This one is really good!" in advance. I think it's a lot of fun, and I think you'll see some stuff that you haven't seen before, and you'll see it in three dimensions, if you don't mind the headache of the glasses.

What do you think your legacy will be, once you leave the franchise?

Just that it's still on television, I think. People always ask that question, especially when you're taking over and when you're aging in the role. [laughs] But the truth is, I just want it to be good and for it to be "Doctor Who." I don't think anyone, including me, gives a damn about what my impact on it is. It's important that it's "Doctor Who," not that it's my "Doctor Who."

Would "Doctor Who" get commissioned today? Would it even be pitched today?

I don't know how it got pitched in the first place. I have no idea how "Doctor Who" got on the air. It's an extraordinary thing. I don't know. "Doctor Who" is strange enough if you look at it in a modern context, but go back and look at what was on British television in 1963.

Look at every other show, and then imagine what it was like. All these captioned title sequences and this stock music for the theme music -- and then suddenly, that extraordinary "Doctor Who" title sequence and that amazing music comes at you. What the hell is that? Then there's a police box that's bigger on the inside. That must have been mind-blowing back in the day.

It's an extraordinary thing that it exists at all.

"An Adventure in Space and Time" airs 9 p.m. ET Friday and "The Day of the Doctor" airs 2:50 p.m. ET and 7 p.m. ET Saturday on BBC America.

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