The Man Who Revitalized 'Doctor Who' And 'Sherlock'
TV writer and producer Steven Moffat specializes in injecting new life into old, familiar characters and stories. He first worked his magic on the revived edition of Doctor Who, leading to several BAFTA and Hugo Awards for the series.
More recently, he has turned his eye to the world's greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes. As the co-creator of the critically acclaimed BBC series Sherlock, Moffat is responsible for updating Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous fictional creation for a modern-day audience.
The series, which is set to start its second season on PBS Masterpiece on May 6, stars the charismatic British actor Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role. Cumberbatch's Sherlock is now a 21st century Londoner who uses GPS and text messaging to solve crimes alongside his partner Dr. Watson, played by Martin Freeman.
Martin and Cumberbatch work seamlessly together, though Moffat notes that finding the right actors for the roles was not the easiest task.
"There are very, very few people who can play Sherlock Holmes, and there have been so many and so few good ones," Moffat tells Fresh Air's TV critic David Bianculli. "In truth, you've got the mighty Basil Rathbone, the mighty Jeremy Brett and a few others. There are just not that many who transcend the role and change the role."
Moffat and his wife, a producer on the series, were on the hunt for their Sherlock when they first noticed Cumberbatch playing a supporting role in the 2007 film Atonement.
"He was a brilliant actor, he had the look, [and we thought] 'Let's send the script to him' " he says. "And we did. He came in and read for it. And after he read for it, we just thought, 'There's really no point in looking anywhere else. There really isn't.' "
Moffat then began the search for Sherlock's other half. After auditioning several actors, Martin Freeman walked into the room to read opposite Cumberbatch.
"I have to say, brilliant though they all were, the moment Benedict and Martin were in the same room, you just thought, 'There it is,' " he says. "I remember saying, 'That's the show right there. That's the show we got.' "
On the importance of Dr. Watson
"If you look at any good version of Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson is every bit as important as Sherlock Holmes, and some would argue more so, because he's our conduit to Sherlock Holmes. He's the person to whom, in a way, the story happens. We are more emotionally resonant with Dr. Watson than with Sherlock Holmes because Sherlock Holmes is a hard man to empathize with."
On the production style of Sherlock
"We always wanted it to be stylish. We didn't want it to be like other television. We wanted it to have a film sense. Everybody says that about their TV show. Everyone says that. But then my wife got a hold of [director] Paul McGuigan, and he's the one who brought the tremendous beauty to it. One of the things he said was, 'You want to think Sherlock Holmes is behind the camera, too.' You want to see the world as Sherlock Holmes sees it. And that informs his work on an awful lot of the show, to give you the Sherlock's eye view of the world all the time."
On casting Doctor Who
"Everything else about a show, other than casting — however great or admirable or excellent it is — can only sort of really be admired. People don't really have a relationship with great writing or great production or great art direction or great direction. They just sort of admire it. What people fall in love with, oddly enough, is other people. The difference between a beautifully made failure and a beautifully made hit is who you've got playing the leads. It really, seriously is. Is a nation going to fall in love with those people and want to see them week after week? And making that decision is tough. But it's easier if you've got a great casting director. ... In the case of Matt Smith as The Doctor, I'd be very, very adamant that we have an older Doctor — that he'd be in his 40s. I wasn't going to have any young Doctors on my watch. And on the very, very first day — the very, very first day — he was the third one through the door. His audition was so perfect, any fool would have cast him. It was dead easy. And I remember asking, 'What age is he?' And he was 26 and instantly the perfect Doctor because he does do that thing of combining the old man and a young man. He looks like a young man assembled by old men from memory."
On his childhood
"I'm a geek. I'm a writer. I spent all of my time in my childhood obsessing about Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Who. I was alone, I was an outsider — what do you expect? I was that bullied kid at the back of the class weeping for loneliness. I don't think, generally speaking, people become writers because they were the really good, really cool, attractive kid in class. I'll be honest. This is our revenge for people who were much better looking and more popular than us. I was a bit like that, I suppose."
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. Our next guest, TV writer and producer Steven Moffat, has made a specialty lately of injecting new life into old characters and stories. The creator of the British sitcom "Coupling" has written and produced recent installments of the "Dr. Who" series, which is coming up on its golden anniversary. And simultaneously he and Mark Gatiss have co-created a well-received modern update of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories.
Called "Sherlock," the series stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock and Martin Freeman from the original British version of "The Office" as Dr. Watson. Season two of "Sherlock" premieres on PBS on "Masterpiece Mystery" this Sunday. Our TV critic David Bianculli spoke to Steven Moffat earlier this week. They began with a scene from the new season. Here Sherlock and Dr. Watson are being briefed by the police - one of whom is Sherlock's brother Mycroft, played by the series co-creator, Mark Gatiss. They're discussing a new case involving Irene Adler, a dominatrix whose website bears the slogan Know When You Are Beaten. Holmes is looking through photos taken from the site.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "SHERLOCK")
BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) And I assume this Adler woman has some compromising photographs.
MARK GATISS: (as Mycroft Holmes) You're very quick, Mr. Holmes.
CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) Hardly a difficult deduction. Photographs of whom?
GATISS: (as Mycroft Holmes) A person of significance to my employer. We prefer not to say any more at this time.
MARTIN FREEMAN: (as Dr. John Watson) You can't tell us anything?
GATISS: (as Mycroft Holmes) I can tell you it's a young person - a young female person.
CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) How many photographs?
GATISS: (as Mycroft Holmes) A considerable number, apparently.
CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) Do Ms. Adler and this young female person appear in these photographs together?
GATISS: (as Mycroft Holmes) Yes, they do.
CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) And I assume in a number of compromising scenarios.
GATISS: (as Mycroft Holmes) An imaginative range, we are assured.
CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) John, you might want to put that cup back in its saucer now.
GATISS: (as Mycroft Holmes) Can you help us, Mr. Holmes?
CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) How?
GATISS: (as Mycroft Holmes) Will you take the case?
CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) What case? Pay her, now and in full. As Ms. Adler remarks in her masthead, know when you are beaten.
GATISS: (as Mycroft Holmes) She doesn't want anything.
FREEMAN: (as Dr. John Watson) She got in touch?
GATISS: (as Mycroft Holmes) She informed us that the photographs existed. She indicated that she had no intention to use them to extort either money or favor.
CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) Oh, a power play. A power play with the most powerful family in Britain. Now, that is a dominatrix. Ooh, this is getting rather fun, isn't it?
FREEMAN: (as Dr. John Watson) Sherlock.
CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) Hmm. Where is she?
GATISS: (as Mycroft Holmes) In London. Currently she's staying...
CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) Text me the details. I'll be in touch by the end of the day. (Unintelligible)...
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
That's Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes in the "Masterpiece Mystery" series "Sherlock."
Steven Moffat, welcome to FRESH AIR.
STEVEN MOFFAT: Thank you. Hello.
BIANCULLI: There's so many questions I want to ask about this. But let me just start with the fact that rather than hide from the updating and the difficult things that you have to do when updating, which is acknowledge phones, cell phones and computers and laptops, you embrace it all and use it. Can you talk about that?
MOFFAT: Well, the thing about Sherlock Holmes in the original is that he's very, very techno-literate. I mean to a contemporary Victorian reader he was a sort of cutting-edge scientist. He was well up with all the stuff. He was also born for the Internet age because he loves research. He loves acquiring knowledge. So I just imagined that, you know, the Sherlock would be lurking on the chat rooms and forums and finding out what's going on. So far from being a difficult thing to embrace, it was a joy because he would love it.
Also one of the marvels of it is in the original stories, even once the telephone becomes a possibility for Baker Street, he doesn't really like the telephone. He prefers to send telegrams. Now, what are texts except telegrams? You know, brisk, to the point, with no actual personal contact.
BIANCULLI: How did you come up with this Sherlock character? I mean the particular edginess of this version as you had written him and adapted him?
MOFFAT: To be honest, I think we did it by going back to the original. I mean this is, this is - Cumberbatch's Holmes is pretty close to the Doyle version. You can find most of those ingredients in the original stories. He seems edgier because we've put him in the modern day. You can sort of put up with Sherlock Holmes' peculiarities when his distant from you, when he's this sort of historical relic in Victorian London. But put them in the modern day and you think, bloody hell, he's a bit frightening, isn't he? He's a scary man. Wouldn't want to get stuck with him. So that edginess comes just when he's in your face, he's living in your town(ph), and he's living now and I think that's what makes him scary.
BIANCULLI: The production style that you have for Sherlock is as high-tech as all of the machines that you feature in it, from laptops to cell phones. And part of it seems sometimes like a graphic novel, but it's always moving fast, it's always going there. Why that production style and how hard is that to implement?
MOFFAT: We always wanted it to be stylish. We didn't want it to be sort of like other television. We wanted it to have a filmic sense. Now, everybody says that about the TV show. Everybody always says that. But then my wife, Sue, got a hold of Paul McGuigan to direct it, and he is the one, I think, who brought that tremendous beauty to it. And one of the very first things he said, having read the scripts and seen the original version of the pilot, was you want to think Sherlock Holmes is behind the camera too. You want to see the world as Sherlock Holmes sees it. And that informs an awful lot of his work on the show, is to, you know, is to give you the Sherlock's eye view of the world all the time. And, you know, I suppose in some way my answer to this...
BIANCULLI: I love that.
MOFFAT: ...my answer to this is, you know, get a very, very good director. But I did and that worked out.
BIANCULLI: Is it a stretch to think that Sherlock Holmes really does belong on television, because they were originally written, like started with Strand Magazine as episodic adventures?
MOFFAT: Well, this is a really interesting thing, actually. It's not too much of a stretch to say that Arthur Conan Doyle invented the TV series. The reason he came up with the Sherlock Holmes short stories, having already created the character in a couple of novels, was he looked to all the fiction magazines and they were all serialized novels or short stories. And he sort of picked up a gap in the market. He thought to himself, well, look, the short stories are great but they don't bring you back next week or next month. The serialized novels are great because they bring you back next month but if you miss the beginning you might not want to join in the middle. So he thought, and this is the first time anyone had done this, what about a continual series of short stories featuring the same character? You can start anywhere you like, but you'll always have a reason to come back next month. Now, that is the TV series. So yes, Sherlock Holmes fits very happily into the medium of television - partly because I think he's the precedent for it.
BIANCULLI: Our guest is Steven Moffat, writer and co-creator of the new "Sherlock" series, returning on "Masterpiece Mystery" on PBS. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: Our guest is Steven Moffat, writer and co-creator of the new "Sherlock" series, returning on "Masterpiece Mystery" on PBS.
I think that in this project in particular, the richness of the casting throughout, not only the writing of the characters but the casting of the primary roles and then of the secondary roles is so crucial. So talk about that process for a while.
MOFFAT: Well, obviously number one is Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes. There are very, very few people who can play Sherlock Holmes, and there have in so many and so few good ones. That's the truth.
MOFFAT: You've got, you know, the mighty Basil Rathbone, the mighty Jeremy Brett and a few others. There's just not that many who are - who transcend the role and actually change the role. So we were very, very aware that getting the modern-day Sherlock Holmes was going to be hell, and after he read for it and we taped it, we just said, well, look, there is really no point in us looking anywhere else, there just isn't.
BIANCULLI: And I have to say, one of the best names of all time...
MOFFAT: And he's real.
MOFFAT: That's his name. Benedict Cumberbatch is actually his actual real name. I know, isn't that great?
How often is Sherlock Holmes played by someone with an even stupider name?
BIANCULLI: It's wonderful.
MOFFAT: Sorry, Benedict if you're listening. It's a great name.
BIANCULLI: And then Martin Freeman, whom some but not enough American listeners would know as one of the stars of the original British version of "The Office."
MOFFAT: Well, there - what we had to do there was we had to find someone who would be the ideal other half. Because if you look at the stories, you look you look at any good version of Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson is every bit as important a character as Sherlock Holmes, and some would argue more so because he's our conduit to Sherlock Holmes. He's the person to whom the story in a way happens. We are more emotionally resonant with Dr. Watson that we are with Sherlock Holmes because Sherlock Holmes is, you know, a hard man to empathize with. So what we did was we got - we auditioned an awful lot of people. Bizarrely, the one of the very - the very first person we auditioned for Dr. Watson was Matt Smith, who we later cast, a few weeks later cast as Doctor Who, and we got a bunch of really, really good people to come in and we thought, well, let's get them all in to read with Benedict and see if magic happens with one of them. And I have to say, brilliant though they all were, and they all were brilliant, the moment Benedict and Martin were in the same room, you just thought, well, there it is. That's it. It's sorted.
BIANCULLI: Well, here's an example of that chemistry from the first season of programs. Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes, Martin Freeman as Watson, and they're discussing Watson's chronicling of Holmes' adventures. And I love this, that he's not doing it in articles that he did in the original short stories, but on a blog.
BIANCULLI: So let's play it and then talk about it.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHERLOCK")
CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) So you've written up the taxi driver case?
FREEMAN: (as Dr. John Watson) Yes.
CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) "A Study in Pink." Nice.
FREEMAN: (as Dr. John Watson) Well, you know, pink lady, pink case, pink phone. There was a lot of pink. Did you like it?
CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) Um, no.
FREEMAN: (as Dr. John Watson) Why not? I thought you'd be flattered.
CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) Flattered? Sherlock sees through everything and everyone in seconds. What's incredible, though, is how spectacularly ignorant he is about some things.
FREEMAN: (as Dr. John Watson) Now, hang on a minute. I didn't mean that in a...
CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) Oh, you meant spectacularly ignorant in a nice way. Look, it doesn't matter to me who's prime minister or who's sleeping with who.
FREEMAN: (as Dr. John Watson) Or that the Earth goes around the sun...
CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) Oh god, that again. It's not important.
FREEMAN: (as Dr. John Watson) Not - it's primary school stuff. How can you not know that?
CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) Well, if I ever did, I've deleted it.
FREEMAN: (as Dr. John Watson) Deleted it?
CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) Listen. This is my hard drive in it only makes sense to put things in there that are useful, really useful. Ordinary people fill their heads with all kinds of rubbish and that makes it hard to get at the stuff that matters is. Do you see?
FREEMAN: (as Dr. John Watson) But it's the solar system.
CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) Oh, hell. What does that matter? So we go around the sun. If we went around the moon or round and round the garden like a teddy bear, it wouldn't make any difference. All that matters to me is the work. Without that, my brain rots. Put that in your blog. Or better still, stop inflicting your opinions on the world.
BIANCULLI: That was Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes, Martin Freeman as Watson. All right. What in that scene captures the essence that you wanted to capture of those two characters?
MOFFAT: Well, I think that's - there's a very lovely scene written by Mark Gatiss. It's - and it combines two moments from "A Study in Scarlet" and "The Sign of Four," actually, about Sherlock's very peculiar attitude to learning. I love the idea that Sherlock Holmes gives bad reviews to Watson's stories. That's from the original, is that every time you read a Sherlock Holmes story, at the beginning of the run in particular, Sherlock Holmes is saying, well, last week was terrible.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MOFFAT: You know (unintelligible) absolute hash of that, and just the - I don't know, the pleasant exasperation between the two of them, the domesticity, the sense of a friendship conveyed by the fact that they never have to be kind to each other. They have absolute confidence.
MOFFAT: You can imagine those conversations rolling on and on into the night.
BIANCULLI: We're speaking with Steven Moffat, who is redoing Sherlock Holmes stories for television now, and also tackled another iconic character for television, Doctor Who. Explain what "Doctor Who" is, you know, in general before we get into the specific.
MOFFAT: OK. Well, "Doctor Who" is a grand old British tradition and actually in my view the best television series of all time. The format is incredibly simple. It's a human looking alien who can travel in a machine called the TARDIS to anywhere in time and space. He's called the Doctor. He travels about. We don't know a lot about him or where he came from so the show is called "Doctor Who," and where he meets people he helps them. He rides into town like Shane, never quite explains who he is, saves everybody and rides out again, though in his case (unintelligible) survives. The part has been plagued by a number of different actors because the doctor has the ability when he's injured or dying to sort of rebirth himself, to regenerate into a new physical form and really a completely different character as a Doctor. It's been running for nearly 50 years in the U.K. (unintelligible) and it's - and if you haven't sampled so far, it is a joy awaiting you.
BIANCULLI: Well, let's play a clip with Matt Smith as the Doctor; Karen Gillan, who is going to become his new companion, Amy Pond. And in the opening episode of this particular series, he visits her in childhood and she gives him an apple with a face on it and then he says he'll be back in five minutes and he returns 12 years later, and this is the scene when he's trying to convince her that he is who he was.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DR. WHO")
MATT SMITH: (as the Doctor) I'm Doctor. I'm a time traveler. Everything I told you 12 years ago is true. I'm real. What's happening in the sky is real. And if you don't let me go right now, everything you've ever known is over.
KAREN GILLAN: (as Amy Pond) I don't believe you.
SMITH: (as the Doctor) Just 20 minutes. Just believe me for 20 minutes. Look at it, fresh as the day you gave it to me and you know it's the same one. Amy, believe for 20 minutes.
GILLAN: (as Amy Pond) What do we do?
SMITH: (as the Doctor) Stop that nurse.
BIANCULLI: That's Karen Gillan as Amy Pond and Matt Smith as the Doctor. And again, I listen to these clips and I watch what's going on and I think that casting is so key. How central is that to how you create a show and then how you and your staff write it for them?
MOFFAT: Well, you know, everything else about a show, other than the casting, other than the central actors, however great it is, however admirable and accomplished and excellent it is, can only ever really sort of be admired. People don't have a relationship with great writing or great production or great art direction or great direction.
They just sort of admire it. What people fall in love with, oddly enough, is other people. So the difference between a beautifully made failure and a beautifully made hit is who you've got playing the leads. And in the case of Matt Smith as the Doctor, I'd been very, very adamant that we'd have an older doctor, that he'd be in his 40s. I wasn't going to have any young Doctors on my watch.
And on the very, very first day of auditions he was the third one through the door. Any fool would've cast him. It was dead easy. And you just think, well, god. And I remember asking what age is he. He was 26.
BIANCULLI: Oh, my.
MOFFAT: And he was just instantly the perfect Doctor because he does do that thing of combining the old man and the young man. As I keep saying, he looks like a young man assembled by old men from memory.
BIANCULLI: Well, both of your productions of "Dr. Who" and "Sherlock," I've noticed are about, like, brilliant loners who are accompanied by single loyal companions. And in the "Dr. Who" series especially you've written very often and very well from the point of view of outcasts and lonely kids. What was your childhood like?
MOFFAT: Well, I'm a geek. I'm a writer. I spent all of my time in my childhood obsessing about Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Who. I was alone. I was an outsider. What do you expect?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MOFFAT: I was that bullied kid at the back of the class weeping for loneliness. I mean, I don't think, generally speaking, people become writers because they were the really cool attractive kid in class. I'll be honest. Sorry, other writers, but we weren't, were we? Come on.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MOFFAT: So I was a bit like that, I suppose. Yeah. I mean, that makes it sound far too wretched and sad. It wasn't that bad.
MOFFAT: Heroes quite often are loners. You very rarely have, bizarrely enough, heroes who are sort of with a huge peer group, do you? I mean even James Bond, who hasn't got the slightest reason to be alone, is, you know. You'd think he'd be a popular guy, but no. He lives his life alone. With a succession of very beautiful women, so that probably helps.
BIANCULLI: I think that you have cast "Sherlock" perfectly, but my question is, after - we're seeing season two now in the States. After season three, I'm wondering if you're going to be able to keep your stars of "Sherlock," because Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are both big stars in the two new "Hobbit" movies. So...
MOFFAT: Yes, but we have their families trapped in a cellar.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MOFFAT: They are both, I can honestly say, very, very keen to carry on with "Sherlock" as it stands. Thing is, we do a limited amount of "Sherlock." That's the way we do it. Every year or so we get together and do three movies. So you are free to do other things. And I think it'll do them both good to descend from their mighty star status in L.A. and New Zealand and get back in a small caravan in Wales and make some more "Sherlock."
BIANCULLI: Steven Moffat, thank you for being on FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: Steven Moffat, speaking with David Bianculli. Moffat is co-creator of the PBS series "Sherlock." Its second season premiers on "Masterpiece Mystery" this Sunday. David Bianculli teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey and is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new film "The Avengers." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.