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‘Doctor Who’: Steven Moffat Talks Algorithms, Easter Eggs and That Explosive Casting Reveal

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[This story contains major spoilers from the May 17 episode of Doctor Who, “Boom.”]

During Russell T Davies’ first time in charge of BBC behemoth Doctor Who, one of its regular writers often wrote some of its more memorable and popular stories.

Scottish writer, Steven Moffat, had made a sizable name for himself in the U.K. with television shows such as Press Gang and Coupling, and would bring new terrors to young Whovians in the form of Gask Mask Zombies and the Weeping Angels. When Davies came to leave the show, Moffat was the natural choice to replace him.

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He cast Matt Smith (The Crown, House of the Dragon) as the youngest ever actor to play the role and made huge strides in the U.S. cementing Doctor Who’s popularity. Moffat would leave the role of showrunner after seven years (and after casting Peter Capaldi to play Smith’s successor).

During his time on Who, the writer also very successfully co-ran another worldwide hit for the BBC, Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. Since then, he’s masterminded the Dracula miniseries (with Sherlock’s Mark Gatiss), adapted The Time Traveler’s Wife for HBO and created Inside Man for Netflix. Later this year, Moffat returns to comedy with Douglas Is Cancelled (a co-pro from his own production company Hartswood Films with SkyShowtime and BBC Studios), reuniting with Guardians of the Galaxy’s Karen Gillan (whom Moffat cast as companion Amy Pond in Doctor Who).

Moffat, despite saying he’d never come back, has returned to work under Davies with the new Doctor, and fellow Scot, Ncuti Gatwa (Barbie, Sex Education).

Is he back with a bang? Actually, he’s back with “Boom.” That’s the title of the latest installment of the new Doctor Who season, currently streaming on Disney+, which he discusses below.

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What’s the relationship between the clerics from your first two seasons as showrunner in the 2010s (in stories such as “The Time of Angels” and “A Good Man Goes To War”) and the Anglicans in “Boom”?

They’re stitching the story together. I always liked the idea of the clerics and that they were Church of England. It worked well, because I needed people who could operate with that degree of faith that a monster they couldn’t see existed. That seemed to be sensible.

Villengard and its weapons factory is a major feature of this episode — it was mentioned in your very first story in 2005 and it was also mentioned in your previous “final” story (2017’s “Twice Upon A Time”). And now it’s back again.

Well, it was nothing really! It was just a throwaway line. It was in “The Doctor Dances” and was just a fun gag.  And so when I was doing my last one, I threw in a reference where he actually goes to the ruins of Villengard. It just fits.

Also, over time, I quite liked the idea of this massive armaments industry. We’ll probably end up having them blow them up at some point again and bring the Banana Grove properly through! [Whovians will know that the Doctor once vaporized the Weapon Factories of Villengard which were then replaced with a banana grove.]

That brings me to something you said recently. You said you didn’t think it was your job, as a writer, to reflect society, but here you are reflecting on the pointlessness of war and the capitalist nature that drives a lot of weapon sales and everything that that brings with it.

That’s the Doctor’s nature, rather than passing a judgment myself. The man is standing on a landmine. He’s not going to have a balanced attitude to the armaments industry at that precise moment (laughs). He also has a consistent and slightly strange anger at soldiers. Except it’s not real, is it? His best friend’s a soldier and he’s pretty much a warrior himself. All loathing is self-loathing, don’t trust that. Just as he disses the idea of faith, he then says, “Keep the faith.” You know, he’s a mass of contradictions.

When I was talking about reflecting society, I think it’s quite reductive when you do that. There are big ideas that we should probably stop having wars. I’m not sure I could find anyone in any part of the political spectrum who wouldn’t be in agreement that we should probably stop having them but they’re quite difficult to stop.

You can make it every case against capitalism. I could equally well make him have a case for capitalism. It’s just depends what mood the old bastard’s in on that particular day. (Laughs)

And the episode is demonstrating how an algorithm can remove people’s humanity. Are you commenting that algorithms are perhaps taking away a bit of our souls when it comes to social media or the internet?

Not really. I don’t actually think I’m qualified to comment on these things much, but they are interesting. I mean an algorithm’s an algorithm, right? It’s what you use it for. If you use it to reinforce people’s pre-existing prejudices, I’m fairly sure that’s bad. But that’s what’s bad about that is reinforcing pre-existing prejudices not the fact there’s an algorithm.

Algorithms also do clever and useful things. For instance, when I finish a book on my Kindle, it always recommends a rather good follow up. So, yay for the algorithm!

Spotify, I would say more times than not, will serve me something that’s actually quite good.

Yes. When it’s not got an algorithm with a nasty agenda, bad. But that’s the nasty agenda to blame. I also like Facebook’s opinion of me. Facebook has a very high opinion of me. (laughs) It recommends art, architecture and Bertrand Russell. That’s what I get from my Facebook. So it’s clearly got a very, very advanced view of my sophistication. I’m very flattered. (laughs)

So let’s address the new character Mundy. [She is played by Andor actress Varada Sethu and has been cast as the new Doctor Who companion for the next season]. This was a shock to say the least, and what a secret to keep! It reminded me of how Jenna Coleman was introduced to the show back in 2012 [Coleman was announced as new companion Clara only to feature in an episode unannounced long before her first episode proper].

Yeah. Well, no, we’re just doing it again. (laughs) I mean, I was talking to Russell [T Davies, showrunner] about what we’re going to do, but she’s there! We’re just going to do Clara again. So it’s fun, isn’t it? It wakes you up. You think, “Ah, there she is!”

Who came up with the name? Was that from Russell T Davies?

And I think I’m going to say nothing about that. (laughs) I’m going to say nothing about what’s going on there. You’re not going to get nothing. It’s Russell’s plan and he will release the details of how that works in his own time, I’m certain.

Ok. So, I shouldn’t ask if she was cast knowing that she was going to come back?

No, you’re just going to have to wait and see. That would be a waste of time. There is a plan. That’s all I’m telling. (laughs)

I particularly enjoyed your use of the phrase “Thoughts and Prayers” throughout the episode. Because I think it’s something that in this world is absolutely futile when people say it, usually after a massive incident. Was that the intention there?

Yes, well I always think, how about, “I’m sending thoughts and prayers”… how about cash? You could send cash! Or, help! What the hell is that? I’m against it. It’s like saying, “I’m very, very saddened about these needless deaths.” I’m glad you gave me that useful piece of information! I thought I might have cheered you up.

I think it is vacuity. How can people come out with this crap in the face of genuine tragedy? You come out with thoughts and prayers? Say something useful or do something useful. Be respectful. Don’t reach up for a line off a shelf and throw it in the grieving faces of the massively traumatized.

Yes. My hope was, if we can get “thoughts and prayers” going as a villainous catchphrase, like “Exterminate!”, people might stop saying it.

Speaking of Daleks, I genuinely thought, as other viewers also might have, that the much-mentioned ambulance in “Boom” was actually going to be a Dalek. Mainly because from a distance, it’s not dissimilar and you build up to its full reveal.

Yeah.

Was that something that was agreed upon?

I suggested it in the edit that we don’t see the ambulance. It’s just that it’s more fun. So originally, the first shot, we saw the whole ambulance just trundle up and then I suggested, “Oh, it’s a bit more Doctor Who not to see it. Maybe we shouldn’t see it until Doctor Who sees it!” So I wasn’t especially thinking it was going to be a Dalek, but it doesn’t hurt, does it?

In the run-up to the episode being released, you mentioned that you’ve put a lot of things in there for fans and you enjoy getting obscure references in. Is there an Easter egg you don’t think Whovians will get?

I think all the Easter eggs there are, I think they will get. There’s nothing I’ve buried there, it’s all the ones you’d recognize.

Apparently Doctor Who sang “The Skye Boat Song” [as Gatwa’s Doctor does in “Boom”] before as Patrick Troughton [the Second Doctor], but I didn’t know that… (laughs) So that’s not me! [The song featured in the 1968 story “The Web Of Fear” and also in the 2022 special, “The Power of the Doctor” but played by the Doctor’s nemesis, The Master, on that occasion].

Agnes and Millicent are named as the parents of the verger Canto in the episode. Is that a reference to the suffragettes, Agnes Garrett and Millicent Fawcett?

Not, not consciously. You’ve been doing your research but this is very good.

Also, the date that’s mentioned a few times in “Boom” — Oct. 5 — I wondered if there was a significance? I know you’re a big James Bond fan and that was the date when the very first James Bond film was released in the U.K. (in 1962). 

Was it? (laughs) No, it wasn’t that. I don’t even know why it is October the 5th! I probably had a reason… it’s a while since I wrote it. I’ve been lying for a long time so  I can’t remember why. (laughs) Maybe it was October the 5th when I put that bit in, I don’t know. But you know, I’m old now, Cameron, so I don’t always remember things. (laughs)

That’s funny. It was also the very same day as the first Beatles single “Love Me Do” was released in the U.K. (coincidentally, the Fab Four featured heavily in the season’s previous episode, “The Devil’s Chord”).

Was it? Really?? The actual same day? Wow, what a day! I prefer your version of events. I did not know that. That is wonderful.

Finally, going back Villengard — I couldn’t help but note it’s pronounced differently by various characters in the episode.

(laughs) It’s a space word, Cameron! They say things differently in space. What do you think? It’s coming from a different language. 

Doctor Who, “Boom” is currently available to stream on Disney+ (excluding U.K. and Ireland). New episodes debut weekly on Fridays. Read THR’s take on the two-episode premiere.

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