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SDCC: 'Sherlock's' Moffat Teases Season 4, Fights Urge To Stay In Victorian Era

"Sherlock" executive producer and showrunner Steven Moffat experienced massive, back-to-back panels in two of the biggest rooms at Comic-Con International in San Diego. Moffat arrived in Ballroom 20 on Thursday afternoon straight from the "Doctor Who" panel, another hit BBC series that he also produces. The "Sherlock" showrunner brought along actor Rupert Graves (Inspector Lestrade) and producer Sue Vertue -- who also happens to be his wife -- to answer fan questions and preview what the future holds for the BBC's favorite detective.

The panel began with a 3-minute video featuring "Sherlock" actors Andrew Scott and Benedict Cumberbatch who apologized for not being able to be there in person. The video then launched into a 90-second clip from the upcoming Victorian-era standalone "Sherlock" episode, which will fill the long wait between seasons three and four -- the latter of which still has to be written.

Moffat then dropped one of the biggest announcements of the panel: the special will play in select movie theaters around the same time it premieres on the BBC, similar to what happened a year ago when the "Doctor Who" 50th anniversary special "Day of the Doctor" played in theaters the week after it aired on television.

Moffat was asked why they decided to set an episode in the past as opposed to modern day, where the series is set. "We discovered that there was some precedent for doing Sherlock Holmes in the Victorian Era," joked Moffat, alluding to the character's history. "We took a look at the books and said, 'Oh, we got it wrong -- it's not supposed to be in the modern era at all."

The producers were quick to add that despite the era change, it will still be very much the "Sherlock" that fans love. "It's still got our sense of humor," said Moffat. "It is the 'Sherlock' that you know, but in the correct era. Sue had to talk us out of keeping it in that era permanently. We're just taking the versions of the characters that you know -- the Benedict Cumberbatch version of Sherlock Holmes, the Martin Freeman version of Doctor Watson, the Rupert version of Lestrade -- we're taking those versions and putting them back in time and seeing how different they'd be. I think it's one of the best ones we've made."

"It is unmistakably our show," added Vertue.

Moffat said one thing he had to do was beef up the women characters while still trying to stay true to the era, because the women characters barely speak in the original Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories. "We built Mrs. Hudson into an incredibly exotic creature with a past," said Moffat. "There isn't a Molly Hooper. We forgot we fucking invented Molly. It was an incredibly sexist era, you can't pretend it wasn't there. How do we put female characters into the era in a way that absolutely makes sense?"

The special is the only new episode completed, and Moffat says writing has not yet started for the "gargantuan run of three episodes" that make up season four. "We know very clearly what stories we're doing, where the story goes, and what the shattering, emotionally draining cliffhangers will be. We now just have to build up the faint illusion of hope that we might not be so evil as to sucker punch you into emotional devastation," he said, as the audience laughed.

 

Moffat said that as far as writing for the supporting characters, "Sherlock is about those two blokes [Holmes and Watson]. That's what's central to it. As for everything else, it's story-driven with a lot of character work, and we made the commitment to always doing Doyle's best version of anyone -- like Lestrade, who in the original stories ranges from aggressive idiot to wise man. When we got Rupert we went for aggressive idiot," he joked.

Moffat noted that Lestrade is only in five or six Holmes mysteries by Doyle. In the "Sherlock" world, he is involved with every mystery -- the character is a Holmes fan. Sherlock thinks Lestrade hates him but in the episode "The Six Napoleons," Lestrade tells him, "You think we're jealous of you but if you came around Scotland Yard, they'd shake your hand and say how great you are."

"That's the version of Lestrade we want," said Moffat. "He is a great copper. It takes a clever man to recognizer a cleverer one." He also said he likes making Sherlock "a dick who doesn't appreciate that Lestrade is one of his best friends, always there for him."

Graves added that the writers "developed and warmed up the relationship between Sherlock and Lestrade."

An audience member asked if there was ever any doubt of casting Cumberbatch as the lead since he didn't have typical leading man looks. "We never had any doubt about casting Benedict," answered Moffat.

"The thing is, he became so good-looking once he was playing Sherlock," added Vertue.

"It's about fame," continued Moffat. "When we first cast Benedict as Sherlock Holmes, there was a slight tremor -- he's quite good-looking, but he's not stunning. No one particularly disagreed, including Benedict. And then he caught on and put his swagger on. I remember watching on a monitor and saying to Martin 'What happened? He's a matinee idol? Where did that come from?' Look at Benedict in the series -- he just gets more and more handsome! Not as handsome as this one," gesturing to Graves. "Benedict can be swanning around the place, but if Rupert wanders past, all of the women ignore Benedict and just go 'Aaahhhh...'"

Moffat was asked about the humor in "Sherlock" and how he writes it. "The laugh comes not on the joke but the reaction to it. That's why brilliant comedy actors are so rare," said Moffat. "Benedict says something outrageous and it goes to Martin or Rupert -- that's where the joke is -- someone tells you, in a way, what to think about that."

On writing stories in general, Moffat said that "a story is an ending and how you get there. You have to know where you're going -- you have to. On 'Sherlock,' whoever is writing it, we have worked out where the biggies are -- there will be a few things kept loose so we can solve it in the moment. Never start writing until you know where you're going or you'll end up in a terrible mess. Even when you do know where you're going you can end up in a terrible mess anyway."

When asked about twists and cliffhangers, Moffat explained that gut punch moments seem easy but only work if you carefully seed bits of information to build up to them. "It's all in the construction of the story. We seed every piece of information you need. When the twist comes, it's not that it's surprising -- it's that you should have seen it. The rug is pulled, but you've been warned for ages. You're not paying attention. So you fall for it. You've got to think 'I was stupid and didn't listen to you.'"

Moffat then confessed that he is generally very miserable when writing. "I keep thinking it's awful and I've never felt this way before about a script," he said. Vertue has to remind him that he said the exact same thing three weeks ago. "I don't feel good at all, ever, ever," concluded Moffat.

The "Sherlock" showrunner does think his writing has improved in some ways over the years though. "I've gotten better at handling emotion than I used to. My fateful predilection for not knowing when enough's enough in terms of a surprise -- I've gotten better at controlling that. And through the constant pressure of Sue and Mark [Gatiss, co-creator], I am not in as such fabulously poor taste as often as I used to be -- but I'm still iffy at times," Moffat said. "I think everything is funny and I'm told 'that's not funny -- it's offensive actually. To you and to no one else who has ever lived is that funny. You laughed, no one else is going to laugh. They're going to hate you.'"

An audience member asked what makes "Sherlock" unique from previous versions of the character. "With Benedict and Martin, we have one of the all-time stellar combinations of Sherlock Holmes and Watson...but our show has floating texts," he added, referring to the on-screen phone captions that pop up for viewers when characters are texting. "That's what's unique about ours," Moffat joked.

Moffat isn't concerned about running out of material. "We've done ten stories. There are 60 [Doyle] stories. The tonnage of Holmes that has never been touched is vast. I am certain that something else will close us down before that -- like old age or death. We take one idea, replace it with another idea, in effect we are sort of making up new stories."

No matter how many stories they tell, Moffat says the character of Sherlock Holmes will always be popular. "We are always going to be in love with the idea of a man who understands everything but himself."

The "Sherlock" special will air on BBC and PBS sometime this year.

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