Steven Moffat: A talk at the Oxford Union

This article first appeared on The Cherwell website on 14 November 2016.

“I am rubbish.” This was the opening statement of Steven Moffat’s talk at the Oxford Union on Monday, and it’s an assessment most of the audience presumably disagreed with. Best known for helming Doctor Who and Sherlock, Moffat’s career stretches back to 1989, and covers such varied genres as children’s TV, sitcoms, feature films, as well as the BBC One dramas which helped make his name. In his brief address before a general Q&A, Moffat stressed the importance of self-awareness.

“I am rubbish. I first became aware of my rubbishness when I overheard my wife on the phone to some camera-people. ‘Don’t get him to take the lens back to Cardiff,’ she said. ‘Why? Because he’ll lose it. I know he’ll lose it. Because he’s rubbish.’ I heard her say that. I took the lens. I lost it.” But rubbishness is a universal trait: “everyone is in disguise as a competent human being.” Diligence is an important factor in success: “you can’t control how rubbish you are… but you can control how hard you work.”

Moffat has been called many things; showrunner, creator, executive producer. But the title he really cherishes is ‘Writer’. “It’s great to be a writer, because we make it up! It’s like you’ve done all the homework, and everyone else copies it.” Moffat was playfully resentful of directors. “They’ll say ‘my inspiration for this movie was this or that moment in my life or this or that artistic vision… and not the 120 pages of finished script my screenwriter gave me! Who else has that, in their job? Oh look, here’s exactly what I need to do.”

The talk then moved into an interview, starting with Doctor Who. Moffat has no patience with the idea of ‘overloading’ the audience. “Children nowadays, teenagers nowadays, are some of the cleverest audiences in history – they’re keeping up with television while texting and tweeting each other, and they’re all getting it. We try never to have a dull moment on Doctor Who.” Catering to adults is fairly straightforward – “it’s like when you go into a restaurant and you eye the children’s menu, and you wish you could order from that instead – it’s the same principle.” There are challenges – “you have to be ringingly clear” – but Moffat was adamant that “to write for children is to write better… everybody likes children’s stuff.”

As well as executive producing Doctor Who, Moffat is co-producer on Sherlock. They’re two very distinct shows, but Moffat finds the differences easy to manage. “I’ve spoken to Mark [Gatiss] about this; we’ve just got to pretend that we don’t work on both. They’re both part of the same landscape, so when a similarity crops up we just try and go with it rather than getting anxious.” It’s not a difference that keeps either writer up at night: “The Doctor is a sort of space Sherlock Holmes anyway.”

Sherlock and Doctor Who are both prestige BBC shows; how does Moffat view the corporation and its future? “The BBC is an unequivocal good – that doesn’t mean every decision it makes is good, or that it’s above reproach, but there’s nothing else in the world like it, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. The circumstances which produced it are never coming back.” Moffat is not totally enamoured of the beeb; “Mark says: ‘you love the BBC, but you don’t expect the BBC to love you back.’” Governments naturally go after the corporation; “no-one likes being criticised. If I had power over every TV critic in the world, I’d have them all executed!” Nevertheless, Moffat hopes that the BBC “remains the powerhouse that it is.”

Returning to Doctor Who, an audience member asked if there was anything Moffat could tell us about the next series. There was talk of a return of the Cybermen, perhaps even an origin story, but Moffat seemed reticent. “Anything is possible… but it’s not an idea that I’m aware of. It’s kind of been done, and I’d be hesitant to return to it. But then I generally speaking lie, so you never know”.

Conscious of potential spoilers, Moffat ended with a tease of series 10: “The Doctor will reliably save the day. There will be big speeches and evil monsters. There will be an epic amount of urgent standing. And you’ll all fall in love with Pearl Mackie as Bill.”


Oxford Etiquette: The Union

This article first appeared in The Oxford Student on 6 November 2015.

The Oxford Union is everything about Oxford as a whole, concentrated in one building and cranked up to eleven. Everything wonderful, infuriating, innovative, archaic, stupid and brilliant about Oxford University is perfectly embodied in that slightly strange little mini-castle tucked down one of Oxford’s side-streets like a mildly embarrassing book, shoved down the side of the bed but still pored over and adored when no-one is looking. But with such an old and self-important institution, it can often be tricky to decide just how one should act within its walls.

First of all, as I discovered when I attended my first debate, it is generally considered bad form to loudly boo and insult the members of the opposition you don’t like. I was roundly expelled from the debating chamber, and shortly thereafter offered a job in Parliament. I declined. A man must preserve some dignity. Suffice it to say that healthy debate is best conducted with a certain degree of respect for the opposition, and one should reserve shouting for less important events, like college football matches or the Magdalen Ball.

On a similar note, the Union library also demands a certain amount of respect. I learned when I first visited that it is very bad manners to sit at the tables staring up at the frankly ludicrously gorgeous ceiling, and that flash photography of said ceiling is in strict contravention of the library rules. And that however appropriate it may seem, blasting Iggy Azalea’s ‘Fancy’ at full volume from your laptop speakers is a sure-fire way to get yourself forcibly expelled from the premises.

Having said all that, try not to get too carried away with Respecting the Institution. The Union is just another Oxford student society, after all, and the fact that it has a few quid does not mean it deserves more or deeper respect than one would pay any other society. It’s just a bunch of rooms that people talk in, which are maybe slightly over-decorated. In that regard, it is a note-perfect embodiment of Oxford as a whole. Right down to the ridiculous entry fees.