Speaking with reporters at WonderCon in San Francisco, writer Neil Gaiman neatly summed up the premise of Doctor Who for anyone still unfamiliar with the legendary sci-fi series: “There’s this wonderful man in a blue box that can travel through space and time. It will turn up where there’s a problem and he will sort it out.”
A fan since the mid-1960s, Gaiman fulfilled a wish to write for the show with “The Doctor’s Wife,” the fourth episode of the upcoming sixth season. He, along with season premiere director Toby Haynes, sat down for a brief chat before their convention panel to discuss their involvement with the series.
Haynes, also a fan since childhood, called the experience “exciting.” Now a series veteran, having directed the Season 5 finale and the most recent Christmas special, he took on the challenge of bringing Doctor Who to a new world: the United States.
The plot of the two-part season premiere, “The Impossible Astronaut” and “Day of the Moon,” finds the Doctor (Matt Smith), his companions Amy and Rory (Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill) and the enigmatic River Song (Alex Kingston) traveling to 1960s America at the behest of a mysterious set of letters, one addressed to each of them. The story sets up threads for the entire season. “We’re going to deal with some big questions about the Doctor and about some of the major characters that you’ve seen so far,” Haynes teased.
For the first time in its long history, Doctor Who came to the United States to film scenes on location in Utah and Arizona. “Going to America is a big deal,” the director said, crediting series producer and head writer Steven Moffat with the idea. “He knew there was a sort of building fandom over here, and it’s great to make a connection with that and get close to it.”
Despite an active Doctor Who fanbase in this country since the 1970s, when public TV stations began importing the adventures of then-current Doctor Tom Baker, the show remained in a certain niche until last year, when BBC America began airing the fifth season. “I think it took it [time] to break in because no one was really promoting it,” Gaiman said.
He believes fans kept the series alive and allowed it to grow. “It was being driven by people falling in love with it one person at a time and telling [their friends], ‘Here’s “Blink,” watch this. Here’s “The Girl in the Fireplace,” watch this. Here’s “Dalek,” watch this.'” With Smith’s arrival as the 11th version of the character last year, the writer said new viewers had a “nice place to jump on.” Combined with an unprecedented marketing push, Doctor Who‘s popularity in the States has never been bigger.
And never has filming the show been more complex. However, Haynes said he likes the peculiar challenge of working on the program. “You’re dealing with two or three impossible things per scene [in every script] that you’ve got to make happen and make happen very quickly on a TV shoot,” he explained. “You’ve got to lead [everybody] with imagination and invention.”
Referring back to his first episode, Season 5’s “The Pandorica Opens,” the director talked about one such example. The scene: Amy finds the helmet of a seemingly inactive Cyberman, one of the shows recurring monsters. When she touches it, the helmet comes to life and attempts to merge with her; a chase ensues. It was one his favorite moments in the script, and he was loathe to lose it. “If you can’t invent a way of making a Cyber-head attack a human [on our budget], then it won’t happen and it very nearly didn’t,” he said. “The greatest thrill in that episode was making that whole sequence work.”
The U.S. trip also presented Haynes with a new crew that had to be schooled on the show’s idiosyncrasies. One example the director mentioned was the importance of the Doctor’s key prop, the sonic screwdriver: Even when it’s not on screen, it resides in the Doctor’s coat. Generally, a prop like it would be on set only when needed in the scene. “To explain those things was weird, but it wasn’t a problem,” the director said. “The crew was incredibly efficient and able, but it was a sort of bonding experience.”
Once the American team understood the particulars of Doctor Who, they showed an enthusiasm for it that Haynes valued. “One thing that you guys really get out here is enthusiasm and confidence,” he said. “When you see it, you just tie straight into it and it’s so encouraging. It’s magic.”
The realities of production also had an impact on Gaiman’s story. Initially scheduled to be the 11th episode of last season, the script was bumped due to budget constraints. “I remember handing in the first draft to them and having a dinner afterwards at Steven Moffat’s place. He said, ‘Look, we love the first draft. It’s brilliant! It’s funny! It’s clever! It’s wonderful!'”
The writer took a dramatic pause in his recollection of events. “‘Just so you know, each episode of Doctor Who has [something like] a hundred man hours of CGI,'” he continued, speaking as Moffat. “‘You have 640.'” While he scaled things back in subsequent drafts, the completed version still had plenty of effects work. “All I know is the finished episode looks beautiful,” Gaiman said. “It has everything I would’ve wanted and it takes you places you’ve never been before.”
The story sees the Doctor, Amy and Rory on a junkyard planet where they meet Idris, played by Suranne Jones. The writer said the character “may turn out to be an old acquaintance of the Doctor’s with a new face.” The episode also features the voice of Michael Sheen as “The House,” the story’s principal antagonist.
“This was my first opportunity to write Doctor Who. It may very well be the only opportunity I ever get because there are too many things in this life that I have to write and there’s not enough time to write them all before I don’t get to write anymore,” Gaiman said. “I was very determined that if I was going to write an episode of Doctor Who, it was going to have everything in it.” That includes scares, laughs, heartbreak and the Who staple of running down corridors. “There are places where I kind of hope that it may add to the giant Doctor Who mythos because you always want to leave something nice behind you.
“Really, what it is, is somebody who always wanted to write an episode of Doctor Who just writing an episode of Doctor Who and being indulged by the BBC in this folly,” he said, agreeing that it was a fan’s dream come true.
It’s a sentiment shared by Haynes. “I’m so luckily. [I had the] biggest set they’ve ever built for Doctor Who in my first episode, going to America in this last one, and working with Michael Gambon in the Christmas special,” he said. “I have a good life.”
Doctor Who returns April 23 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on BBC America.