Tag Archives: Steven Moffatt

Who’s next?

With Peter Capaldi revealing he plans to leave the Tardis at the same time as showrunner Steven Moffatt also departs Doctor Who, Stephen Arnell considers the future for the long-running sci-fi drama.

The old adage ‘be careful what you wish for’ may strike Doctor Who star Peter Capaldi (above) as particularly pertinent in the light of his decision to leave the show later this year.

Especially so since Capaldi was a devotee of the series in his youth, even going to the extent of writing a fan letter to the Radio Times way back in 1974 when he was just 15.

When he landed the role in 2013, it must have been something of a dream come true for the actor, hitherto best known in the UK playing the foul-mouthed spin doctor Malcolm Tucker in the BBC comedy The Thick of It (2005-2012).

Since Capaldi became the 12th incarnation of the Doctor after the exit of Matt Smith (The Crown), the show has suffered a noticeable decline in ratings and sniping from both critics and fans concerning the quality of scripting – and occasionally the acting.

Matt Smith as the Doctor alongside Jenna Coleman

Back in November 2015, Capaldi blamed declining viewing figures on what he felt was erratic scheduling by the BBC, for what is still essentially a family show. The series was moved from its previous family-friendly teatime slot and frequently finished after the 21.00 watershed. “I feel it’s slightly used as a pawn in a Saturday night warfare,” he said. “I feel as if it should go out at 19.30 or around that time.”

“And once you get past 20.15, you’re getting yourself into adult territory and although a lot of adults really like it, at its heart, it’s designed to do a lot of entertaining of children as well.”

Also departing with Capaldi following the 2017 Christmas special is showrunner Steven Moffat, who suffered flak for what was seen by some as overcomplicated plotting, subpar effects, pointless gimmicks, shouted dialogue and weak attempts at humour – criticisms that also dogged him across the Matt Smith era.

Even Doctor Who’s music came under fire, with the score at times tipping into parody with its recurrent intrusive bombast.

Stunt casting of guest stars also drew criticism, harking back to the dying days of the original series when comedians such as Ken Dodd, pop stars like Leee John from Imagination and light-entertainment hosts including Nicholas Parsons all made appearances in the show.

Chris Chibnall

The revived Doctor Who has also seen some distracting guest stars, including soap actress Barbara Windsor (in character as EastEnders’ Peggy Mitchell), James Corden and comedian Frank Skinner.

It’s possible that in acting as showrunner to both Doctor Who and Sherlock, Moffat had taken on too much – to the detriment of both shows.

Older fans dubbed Capaldi the Colin Baker (the sixth doctor) of the rebooted Doctor Who – a capable actor felt to have been let down by the creative team.

But as long as the series is a relative cash cow for distributor BBC Worldwide, the corporation will continue with the show, hoping that incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall can breathe new life into the ailing franchise.

Chibnall has a resumé that mainly comprises sci-fi and fantasy, although it does include the hit crime drama Broadchurch (and its failed US counterpart Gracepoint), plus a UK version of Dick Wolf’s Law & Order, Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood, and episodes of Doctor Who itself.

Back in 2011, alongside Vikings’ Michael Hirst, he co-created the shortlived Starz series Camelot, which chimed with his earlier unsuccessful attempt to get his 2005 take on Merlin commissioned by the BBC.

The BBC will no doubt ramp up expectations around the casting of The 13th (unlucky for some?) Doctor.

The betting seems to be going in the direction of either a female or non-white (or both) actor for the role, representing a clean break from the white male casting of the role to date, although conversely Ben Wishaw (Spectre, London Spy) is currently the favourite in terms of odds.

It’s difficult to see Wishaw giving up his varied and successful career in film and TV for the part, but stranger things have happened.

Chibnall created crime drama Broadchurch, which starred Doctor Who alum David Tennant

Both David Tennant (Broadchurch, Jessica Jones) and Matt Smith (The Crown) have by and large managed to escape being pigeon-holed by the role of The Doctor, which tended to be the case for previous leads in original 1963 to 1989 run of the show.

So far, other names in the frame include Olivia Colman (The Night Manager, Broadchurch), Hayley Atwell (Conviction, Agent Carter), Richard Ayoade (The IT Crowd), David Harewood (Homeland, Supergirl), Rory Kinnear (Penny Dreadful), Miranda Hart (Spy, Miranda) and Sophie Okonedo (Undercover).

Going by previous casting for the role, it’s probably unlikely to be an actor who is too familiar to viewers. The only real exception to this was Christopher Eccleston, who launched the rebooted show for one season back in 2005, when the BBC presumably felt a ‘name’ was necessary to give Doctor Who a fighting chance against the competition.

Which indeed it did, as an average audience of eight million viewers tuned into the series, with strong audience appreciation figures of 80-plus throughout the 13-episode season.

Eccleston left soon after the conclusion of his sole season, with a number of conflicting rumours continuing to this day as to exactly why – depending on which member of the production team one talks to.

So how will Chibnall approach the task of kickstarting the franchise? Will he re-invent the character and bring the Doctor down to earth, as happened literally in the original series, when the third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) was exiled to Earth and denied use of the Tardis by his fellow Time Lords for his first 25-episode season in the role?

Billie Piper and Christopher Eccleston took the lead when Doctor Who returned to TV in 2005

There may be further tie-ins with the BBC3 spin-off Class, or possibly the return of Torchwood in some form.

Resurrecting old villains is also a way of igniting the fan base, so perhaps we can expect some of the lesser-known baddies to return – the Quatermass-influenced Daemons (season eight of the original series, with the third Doctor) being a particular favourite among Who aficionados.

Whatever happens, there will always be the challenge of pleasing a family audience – keeping it exciting and scary for the kids but maintaining enough character, humour and knowingness for the adults.

Whatever happens, expect some radical changes – going by the usual trends in TV drama, Doctor Who’s waning ratings will herald steeper falls in the not-too-distant future if unchecked.

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Whose Dark Materials?

Philip Pullman is looking forward to seeing his work brought to life on TV
Philip Pullman is looking forward to seeing his work brought to life on TV

The BBC has greenlit an eight-part drama series based on Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials, which comprises novels Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.

Commissioned by BBC1 controller Charlotte Moore and BBC drama commissioning controller Polly Hill, the adaptation will be produced by Bad Wolf – the new prodco from Jane Tranter and Julie Gardner’s – and New Line Cinema, which is making its first move into scripted TV. The show will be made in South Wales and Los Angeles.

One thing we don’t know is who will write the show. Screenwriters are being talked to right now, so this week we’re speculating wildly on who might get the job.

Adapting His Dark Materials (which has sold 17.5 million copies and been translated into 40 languages) is undoubtedly a great gig for any TV writer. But it will also be a tough challenge.

Not only is Pullman’s trilogy a complex and controversial piece of work (which may not sit comfortably in the BBC1 schedule), it has the shadow of a failed movie hanging over its head in 2007’s The Golden Compass, so there is no question it will require a proven talent to pull it off – someone who can capture the dark, subversive nature of the work without diminishing its sense of mischief, romance and adventure.

Jane Tranter (left) and Julie Gardner of Bad Wolf
Jane Tranter (left) and Julie Gardner of Bad Wolf

If their diaries allow it, the obvious choices to handle the project would be Russell T Davies or Steven Moffat, both of whom have exactly the right credentials for a project of this kind. Moffat, immersed in Doctor Who and Sherlock, might not be a realistic option right now. But both writers are close to Tranter and Gardner and know what it takes to create shows that can work on both sides of the Atlantic, which will be a significant consideration for New Line Cinema.

On the face of it, both writers perhaps seem a little too slick for Pullman’s sombre fantasy world, but their sense of fun may be exactly what’s required to avoid the fate of The Golden Compass movie.

Tranter and Gardner won’t want to stray far from this kind of quality. But if Davies and Moffat aren’t available then they may look to other writers who have developed their credentials in and around Doctor Who, Torchwood and Sherlock. Again it depends on diaries, but you would have to look at the likes of Mark Gatiss (Doctor Who, Sherlock) – who might even bag a part in the show.

Strong alternatives with proven showrunner ability include Chris Chibnall (Doctor Who, Torchwood and Broadchurch) and Toby Whitehouse. Whitehouse would be an interesting call; a long-time friend of Gardner, he has shown the same kind of versatility as Gatiss and Chibnall with credits such as Doctor Who, Torchwood, Being Human and The Game.

His Dark Materials has been adapted for several forms, including the theatre...
His Dark Materials has been adapted for several forms, including the theatre…

If you’re looking for someone with recent credentials in adapting awkward novels then Peter Harness may be an option. Aside from his BBC1 adaptation of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, his credits include Wallander and City of Vice. Interestingly, he is also now part of the Doctor Who star chamber, having written episodes for the last two seasons (including The Zygon Inversion, co-written with Steven Moffat).

Other in-demand writers that you ignore at your peril include Jack Thorne (The Fades, The Last Panthers), Hugo Blick (The Honourable Woman) and Howard Overman (Misfits). And to balance the fact that this is an all-male list, you’d have to consider talents like Abi Morgan, Sally Wainwright and Sarah Phelps – though this certainly feels like more of a project for graduates of the Doctor Who school of creative writing (which means we should also consider Neil Cross, whose credits include Spooks, Doctor Who and detective series Luther).

Tranter and Gardner might, of course, head in a completely different direction. With so much movie talent coming over into TV, why not go for Alex Garland or Jane Goldman – Brits who are pre-eminent in their field? Or maybe it requires the involvement of Nicholas Wright, the playwright who successfully adapted the novels for the National Theatre.

...for the big screen, as the critical and commercial flop Golden Compass...
…the big screen, as the critical and commercial flop Golden Compass…

The innate Britishness of the Pullman project (its location, its core characters and its brooding discontentment with Catholicism), combined with the film’s underperformance, probably militate against the use of a US writer. And it looks like the kind of project that would suit a writer-auteur rather than a writers room.

But US writers who Gardner and Tranter have worked with recently include Glen Morgan (Intruders), David Goyer (Da Vinci’s Demons) and John Shiban (Torchwood: Miracle Day). So if winning the US market is a big priority then any of these might be a credible screenwriting solution.

All of which is, of course, pure speculation – and there are plenty of other scribes who could handle the brief. It’s important, for example, to keep in mind that the chosen writer will need to pass muster with Pullman, not just Tranter and Gardner.

...and a graphic novel
…and a graphic novel

In the meantime, all we really know so far is what the production team and author have told us. Commenting on the project, Pullman said: “It’s been a constant source of pleasure to me to see this story adapted to different forms and presented in different media. It’s been a radio play, a stage play, a film, an audiobook, a graphic novel – and now this version for TV.”

Although the BBC announcement was only made this week, there is already a sense that His Dark Materials is better suited to TV than film (echoing other complex fantasy works such as Frank Herbert’s Dune).

Pullman, who will executive produce, seems positive about the medium’s potential to tell his story: “In recent years we’ve seen the way that long stories on television, whether adaptations (Game of Thrones) or original (The Sopranos, The Wire), can reach depths of characterisation and heights of suspense by taking the time for events to make their proper impact and for consequences to unravel. And the sheer talent now working in the world of longform television is formidable.

“For all those reasons I’m delighted at the prospect of a television version of His Dark Materials. I’m especially pleased at the involvement of Jane Tranter, whose experience, imagination, and drive are second to none. As for the BBC, it has no stronger supporter than me. I couldn’t be more pleased with this news.”

Northern Lights is the first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy
Northern Lights is the first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy

Tranter added: “It is an honour and a joy to be part of the team responsible for bringing Philip Pullman’s trilogy of novels to the BBC. Ever since they were first published, these books have been a huge influence on so much of my thinking and imagination and it is enormously inspiring to be now working on them for television adaptation.

“The broad horizons of television suggests itself as the best of vehicles to capture the expansiveness of the story and worlds of Lyra and Will, and I am looking forward to seeing how Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass will occupy their place in an audience’s imagination across many episodes and seasons.”

Tranter’s use of the word ‘seasons’ as opposed to ‘season’ is, of course, illuminating. The books aren’t Game of Thones-like in length, so it’s doubtful the three of them could justify more than a series each (unless Bad Wolf goes down the interminable route taken with JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit). So any writer who is thinking about coming on board is probably looking at a three-year commitment (assuming the TV show doesn’t suffer the same fate as the movie version) – which isn’t too bad. That said, they should probably read this article in The Guardian to remind themselves why the film version didn’t work.

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