Fans of all ages and possibly species lined up Sunday for a special Doctor Who preview at WonderCon in San Francisco. Spinoff Online joined the crowd, which included devotees dressed as their favorite Doctor, alien and even the TARDIS, for an exciting hour with season-premiere director Toby Haynes, writer Neil Gaiman and actor Mark Sheppard as they talked about the opening two-part episode, Gaiman’s upcoming episode, and the future of everyone’s favorite time traveler.
The series, which stars Matt Smith as the Doctor, Karen Gillan as Amy and Arthur Darvill as Rory, returns to BBC and BBC America for a sixth season on April 23.
The presentation began with a warm greeting for moderator Chris Hardwick, host of G4TV’s Web Soup. Someone shouted, “You rock!” to which he replied, “No, you rock, person!”
“I’ve been nerding out with these guys for the past two days,” Harwick said as he introduced the panelists. Haynes directed last season’s finale, the most recent Christmas special and two-part Season 6 premiere, “The Impossible Astronaut” and “Day of the Moon.”
Sheppard pointed out, “That’s three consecutive stories in a row,” a Doctor Who first.
Hardwick asked how Haynes became involved with the series. “I got a script through the door,” he began humbly enough. As a kid, he was a huge fan of the original show, a love the ignited an interest in film and television. Being asked to direct Doctor Who was a “defining moment” moment in Haynes’ career.
Of course, being a fan means occasionally geeking out with producer and head writer Steven Moffat. “He was going through his mail and he got a brand-new copy of The Brilliant Book, the [Doctor Who] Annual of the Matt Smith era,” Haynes said. The Annual is a U.K. tradition, filled with prose and comic stories, puzzles, and tidbits from writers and people involved with the show. Moffat already had one, so he passed the copy on to Haynes, who asked him to sign it. “Doing the finale of the [fifth season], doing the Christmas special and opening the new [season] isn’t enough, and you want me to sign your book for you?” he recalled the producer saying.
“Yeah!” he squealed in response. A lifelong Who fan himself, Moffat understood the compulsion.
Haynes discussed coming to the United States to shoot in Utah and Arizona. “It’s just a totally different scale,” he said. “You know why they invented wide lenses.” In British television, he explained, the wide lens is used to make everything bigger, but on this production, he used to it get the sweeping vista of Monument Valley into the frame, proving it was not a green-screen effect. “We needed to show, in one shot, that we weren’t cheating.”
Hardwick joked, “America is bigger on the inside.”
Sheppard had a similar story about coming on board to play the mysterious Canton Everett Delaware III. “They asked me,” he recalled. “I jumped 35 feet into the air and said, ‘absolutely.’ It’s the gig of a lifetime.”
The actor, well known for recurring roles on Battlestar Galactica and Supernatural, admitted that he hoped his rising profile would get him a part on Doctor Who, but “the show got bigger and bigger.” When the stars finally aligned, his schedule on Supernatural threatened to prevent his involvement. Discussing it with the Who production team, Sheppard revealed he had a 10-day break. “They asked me, ‘Can you come out tomorrow?'” The crew flipped its plans to accommodate him.
Asked if there was anything he could reveal about the character, Sheppard replied, “He’s American.”
Similarly, Gaiman offered scant details of his episode, “The Doctor’s Wife.” It was originally slated to be the 11th episode of Season 5, but when the production team found there was little money left to produce it, they quickly assembled “The Lodger” in its place. “We promise that we will spend money on it in the next season,” Gaiman recalled them saying.
Shifting the episode to the sixth season meant adding Rory to the script, a rewrite Gaiman wasn’t looking forward to, but ultimately found enjoyable. “It was actually so much more fun,” he said. “I discovered I could write these great lines for Rory and Amy.”
One such moment includes Amy chewing out Rory for leaving the Doctor alone. “He’s a Time Lord, he’ll be fine,” Rory says. Amy replies, “That’s just what they’re called. It doesn’t mean he knows what he’s doing.”
The panelists praised Smith, who took over the role last year and became the youngest person ever to play the 906-year-old time traveler. “You write stuff for Matt and he brings it in better, sometimes funnier, but definitely odder,” Gaiman said. “He’s the first of the Doctors who actually feels vastly ancient. … Almost for the first time since [Fourth Doctor] Tom Baker, the central entity and the body are two slightly different things ”
“He carries that weight superbly,” Sheppard added.
As a director, Haynes found Smith’s abilities to be a major asset. “He conjures up the universe in his eyes,” he said. “He’s more valuable to us than any of the other special effects.”
Sheppard and Gaiman traded notes on their Smith-guided tour around the TARDIS console room. “[He] showed me how every button and wheel works,” the actor said. Soon, both men were talking about a special plaque that offered the manufacturing information of the Doctor’s ship.
“It’s never been shown on any TV,” Gaiman said. “It’s just a little plaque that tells which Gallifreyan workshops it was built in.”
The lights dimmed for clips from the upcoming episodes. The first featured Delaware getting dragged to the White House by Secret Service agents. Before he gets there, he takes a phone call from President Nixon. Meanwhile, in the TARDIS, River Song (Alex Kingston) tells the Doctor about Delaware and why they have to find him.
The second clip, from “The Doctor’s Wife,” sees the Doctor, Amy and Rory on a junkyard planet where they encounter an Ood, one of the show’s more memorable alien creatures. The Doctor attempts to fix its translator orb and hears a noise that shocks him. He soon learns the whole planet is known as “The House.” After an odd pair invites him to meet The House, he tells Amy why the noise scared him. “Somewhere on this planet, there are Time Lords,” he says. “Lots and lots of Time Lords.”
Following the clips, Hardwick opened the floor to questions. The first person asked the panel what the easiest and hardest thing is about working on the show.
“The easiest was the fact that they never tried to rein me in,” Gaiman said. “I had this mad idea for a story. Steven had no problem with it.” The hardest part was writing an episode of television where cost matters. The writer, used to comics and novels, limited his imagination to make the story feasible from a production standpoint. “The Doctor’s Wife” originally started with a scene they ultimately had to cut due to the schedule constraints. “It was really frustrating and a heartbreak at the time,” he said.
For Haynes, “The easiest thing is turning the camera onto any of the actors that we have on the show.” He noted the principal cast’s talents and attractiveness.
“Karen’s legs are impossible!” Gaiman added.
The hardest thing for the director is what he called the “dream killer” meeting where “all the realities of production are plumped in front of you.” Presented with the challenges of making the fantastic ideas in every episode of Doctor Who real, that conference often sees script elements scaled back or discarded. While it is difficult, Haynes said it offers “more satisfaction, because you’ve been pushed.”
Sheppard thought the easiest thing was the atmosphere on set. “The love and passion and the fact everyone there wants to make something fantastic,” he said. The hardest: “Not everything shot can be [in the final product].”
After lavishing the panel with praise, a fan asked Haynes why the Tenth Doctor’s TARDIS interior appears briefly in the trailer. The crowd buzzed with anticipation. “That’s not my episode,” the director replied. “I don’t know, but I’ll be watching it as a fan, trying to work that one out.”
Sheppard added that he saw the old TARDIS set being torn down while filming his episodes.
Closing the panel, Gaiman used a slide to reveal his next television project: an appearance on The Simpsons. In the still, Gaiman is about to have his neck sliced by Moe the Bartender. As with Doctor Who, secrecy surrounds the reasons behind the picture. “I cannot comment on why Moe wants to kill me,” the author said.
The new season of Doctor Who premieres at 9 p.m. ET/PT April 23 on BBC America.