Who Said? Anatomy of a Hit Show

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Anatomy of a Hit

I have a very special guest for you this week. This is rather exciting. This blog post has largely been written by Stephen ‘what the hell are you doing to my favourite characters’ Moffat. Oh yes.

Sadly, Mr. Moffat is not actually writing for my blog. But I did go to a lecture / Q&A session with him and his team on Tuesday night, hosted by the Royal Television Society. The subject was how Doctor Who is written and produced, and I took notes. I’m a researcher by day and a writer by night. Of course I took notes.

So here, for your delectation and delight, are words of wisdom from the writing and production team of the world’s longest running sci-fi series.

On Doctor Who

“On paper – in the script – the Doctor is always the same. Remarkably the same. It’s the actor’s performance that pushes it in seemingly different directions.”

“There’s long scenes in Doctor Who because frankly the budget runs out and everyone has to get involved in some urgent standing around.”

“The Doctor’s always surprised he has to say the nice things. He says the nasty things but he rarely thinks to say the nice ones. He takes so much understanding for granted – he assumes the people he loves know how much he loves them.”

“Big secrets that the dialogue gives away whilst filming on location are whispered or mimed. The line is then recorded and added later.”

“…And the Master will be a woman. So what? What does that mean? You cast a person, not a gender. Otherwise it’s just a gimmick, and I swore never to do those.”

“If you fight the Weeping Angels and the Silence, what would your nightmares be like?”

That last one is a really interesting point. Given what your characters get up to in their waking hours, what would their nightmares be like? How would that affect them? Also, what does your character take for granted? What don’t they think to say?

Note the creepy positioning of the Weeping Angel

Note the creepy positioning of the Weeping Angel

On Storytelling

“You cling onto the maddest, boldest part of a story and you make it work, no matter the restrictions. Because that’s what excited you about the story in the first place.”

“Always try to think how you grab people in the first few minutes. Otherwise they’ll go off and make a cup of tea.”

“If you tell the truth all the time there’s no variety. Keep secrets. Keep surprises up your sleeve.”

“People don’t want stories that are safe or reassuring. They want exciting and dangerous stories that can take them to new places.”

everwalker fails to be stealthy whilst attempting to hijack the TARDIS

everwalker fails to be stealthy whilst attempting to hijack the TARDIS

“You don’t know what other people want. Trying to imagine you’re clever enough to guess, when you can’t even think what to get the sods for their birthday, is impossible. Write what you want. You can only ever write the joke that makes you laugh.”

Now, I know that none of those particular pieces of advice are stunningly original. That’s sort of the point, actually. This man – whether you agree with his creative choices or not – has been hugely successful in his involvement with both Doctor Who and Sherlock. A huge number of people clearly like his storytelling (including me). If these are his top tips for writing successful stories, then it suggests he doesn’t have some kind of secret technique or gold-plated muse locked up in his cupboard. He knows the same pieces of advice as everybody else, and makes the most of them. And it’s a lot of most. Watching him talk about Doctor Who, it’s obvious that no one is a bigger fan of the show or the character than he is. He loves the stories he tells, and that passion draws in the rest of us.

So go write your stories, and love them. Love every mad, bold, exciting, dangerous part of them. And maybe, one day, millions of other people will love them too.

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5 responses »

  1. That’s a lot of great stuff, and I’m jealous of your being at this. But I thought that the last two quotes following after each other showed a certain contradiction in thinking, and one that I think is about how Moffat views his audience. He wants exciting, dangerous stories, as do many other people, myself included. But as the next quote highlights, you can’t assume that other people want what you do, and the responses to his work show that there are also many people – including myself when I’m in a low mood – who want the familiar and the safe. Trying to shove the exciting and innovative down everybody’s throats and then looking surprised that they don’t like it is a little disingenuous. I love what he’s done with Doctor Who, particularly this season, and I’ll defend it to the hilt, but nothing is what everybody wants.

  2. I’d just like him to give us a little science with our science fiction rather than ideas so stupid that Harry Potter is more scientifically accurate, the whole season was a wash-out in that sense. And boy did it have a lot of robots…

    When Moffat is on form he writes great characterisation and interesting plots… I can only assume we’re going to have a blinding season of Sherlock next year…

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