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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.

Steven Moffat is the co-creator of <em>Sherlock</em>. He's also the lead writer and executive producer for the British science-fiction TV show <em>Doctor Who.</em>
Toby Canham / Getty
Steven Moffat is the co-creator of Sherlock. He's also the lead writer and executive producer for the British science-fiction TV show Doctor Who.

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.' "

Interview Highlights

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

Matt Smith stars as The Doctor in a new season of <em>Doctor Who</em>.
Matt Smith stars as The Doctor in a new season of 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."

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.