In recent years, Doctor Who has proven that writing for the show isn’t as easy as it might first appear. With the bar set high during Russell T. Davies’ time as showrunner, Steven Moffat’s tenure sought to build and expand on what had gone before.
Moffat, who wrote classic episodes like “The Empty Child,” “Blink,” and “Heaven Sent,” is one of the most prolific writers in the show’s history. With a Hugo and BAFTA under his belt, he’s also one of the most honored, noted for his time-bending plots that put the story front and center. Under his watch, the show survived the departure of the immensely popular David Tennant.
Speaking in the recent “Writing Doctor Who” special edition of Doctor Who Magazine, Moffat says that he “can’t think of a writing skill that you don’t use on Doctor Who” and there won’t be a “resource you will not call on” when writing for the show.
Steven Moffat’s rules for writing good Doctor Who episodes
Throughout his time on Doctor Who, Moffat was praised for the genuine drama and emotion in his storylines, with the departure of Amy and Rory during “The Angels Take Manhattan,” “Heaven Sent,” and the Twelfth Doctor’s speech to the Master and Missy standing out as especially memorable. Yet he was also criticized for plot holes. Moffat is unrepentant, insisting that there are no rules where time and space are as malleable as on Doctor Who.
However, while bending the show’s rules is permissible, Moffat points out that you still need to “be good at plotting, character, action, humor… and good at stage directions!” And one rule he insists on is not bogging the plot down in technical sci-fi jargon.
If you need some old hack like me to invent some sci-fi names for the monsters, that’s fine. But even then, I don’t think you need that. That’s where ‘timey-wimey’ comes from. The Doctor doesn’t speak in sci-fi jargon – he invents his own idiot-sounding jargon.
While Doctor Who goes to some pretty wild places, it has certain boundaries writers need to be mindful of. Moffat wants to see experienced writers going with what they know. “[I]f you wrote an episode of Black Mirror, I think you’d have to be very good at sci-fi,” he said. “But if you can write action, adventure, humor, romance, and emotion, you will do fine on Doctor Who.”
With the quality of writing becoming a source of frequent commentary from fans and critics alike, Steven Moffat’s tips for successful Doctor Who scripts are likely to resonate with many ahead of the show’s eight-episode return later this year for season 13. Yet the former showrunner doesn’t believe there is really any great secret to making good Doctor Who episodes, saying his message to writers would be avoid subtlety and avoid boring bits. “You’ve seen it – make one of those!”
Doctor Who will return to BBC One in the UK and BBC America in the United States later this year.