On Tuesday, DWO attended a screening of Death in Heaven in Cardiff, which was followed by a Q&A session with Doctor Who Showrunner Steven Moffatt, Executive producer Brian Minchin, and Visual Effects Supremo Will Cohen. During the course of the chat, the trio reflected on the making of Season Eight, discussed the epic season finale, and even started to look toward the future…
Doctor Who is a very emotional show. Do you focus on that when writing? What’s at the forefront of your mind when creating an episode?
Steven Moffatt: To try and make sure that nobody’s talking about watching anything else! You need to find an emotional through line to very story, because everything else about Doctor Who is so mad. It’s all monsters, and CGI, and explosions, and running. Nothing wrong with any of those things, they’re all my favourites, but you also need for it to be about something, and that I think is what makes it work.
What made you turn the Master in to a woman?
SM: I’d never written a Master story, and there had been a number of Masters in the show from the amazing Roger Delgado through to John Simm, and I could never think of a way to do it which was interesting.
And then I thought, if you could smuggle her in to the show in plain sight and then land that one… and then once and for all absolutely establish in plain sight, so nobody has any doubt about this whatsoever: yes, Time Lords can do that… it just expands the show a little bit.
You get old time fans saying ‘no! You’re not allowed to do that…!’
And what about Disney fans? She’s Mary Poppins!
SM: Mary Poppins has always been evil!
I don’t know why. To be honest, it was a gimmick at the start - there’s nothing wrong with a gimmick - and I was really fiddling with how on Earth I was going to write it.
Michelle Gomez was on the list for a different part, and she’d been offered another part but couldn’t do it. But then I thought ‘Oh my God, that’s it!’ Michelle is so genuinely barking… I thought there’s never going to be a dull moment on screen! I’ve known Michelle for a long time, because she was married to Jack Davenport who had done Coupling. So I’d known her, I’ve gotten drunk with her, and she actually is like [she is on screen]. That’s toning it down.
So is the Master gone now?
I was delighted back when the wonderful Anthony Ainley was the Master back with Peter Davison, and he would definitively get fried, or incinerated, or destroyed at the end of each story… and he’d turn up at the beginning of the next one and basically say ‘I escaped’. I had no problem with that!
So… observe how I’ve avoided your question! What are the chances?
This is the first time that the Master has worked with the Cybermen…
SM: Oh, but the Master has met the Cybermen before. Would you like me to list them?
But why the idea to team them up?
I’ve never written a Cyberman one, and when I was a kid, I absolutely loved the Cybermen. They were my favourite. I mean, the Daleks were really my favourite, but I pretended that the Cybermen were my favourite to make myself more interesting. Which absolutely doesn’t work.
I’d always wanted to make them creepy and scary. I was aware that there is kind of a problem that the Cybermen are brilliant at standing there, and brilliant at breaking out of tombs, fantastic at breaking out of tombs - they’ve been doing that since 1967 - but when they stand up and actually arrive… they’ve a monotone voice, no facial expressions, and no emotions. That can be tricky. You sort of want to put them with somebody who can be the interface. But I love Cybermen.
I don’t even know why they’re great. The absolutely indispensable part of the Cybermen is that they’ve got handles there… I mean the idea of removing them would be heresy… But what are they for?
But I do adore them. Especially an old show called The Tomb of the Cybermen, which I’ve ripped off many times, it’s just perfect Doctor Who. Glorious Doctor Who.
If you bring the Rani back, would she be a man?
SM: What, still? I don’t know! I’ve never been quite sure if outside of the circle of Doctor Who fans, if she’s really a character that people know about. I don’t know. I don’t think that people who have real lives - not like us - would really recognise that character. The Master, everyone seems to know about the Master, but I’m never quite sure about the Rani. But… I could just be bulls******g! I said I wasn’t bringing back the Master right at the start of this series - just a straightforward lie! But it’s a good idea… the Rani as a man is quite…!
In this season, you really explore who the Doctor is. Was that part of the reaction to bringing in a new actor to the role?
SM: Well, it was sort of two things. I thought it was time to do that. Before we discussed who was going to be the new Doctor, I was thinking ‘it’s getting all a bit cosy’. The Doctor is a reliable hero, and he’ll turn up and be fantastic. Matt Smith was incredible at doing that, but I thought it was a bit cosy and reliable. So, the reason that I did what I did in Matt’s last episode - to trap him on a planet for a thousand years, and remind him that everybody else will die around him, he’s not anybody’s boyfriend, he’s not really one of their playmates, he’s something else entirely - meant that you could go somewhere else with it.
From the Doctor’s point of view, he’s had a long break in his travels. If you asked him… I think he’d be quite surprised to discover that there’s an early Saturday evening adventure serial about him. I suppose that would come as a shock to anyone. But he doesn’t think of himself as a hero, you’ve got to give him something to play.
He’s great, as Peter has started doing, turning and looming into the camera for a ‘hero reveal’, and if you’ve got actors as the Doctor of the calibre that we’ve had since the very beginning of the show, then you’ve got to give them something to play. Not just falling out of planes… though that’s good too…
What does it feel like to see everything you’ve written come together in to an episode?
SM: What does it feel like? It feels absolutely brilliant. That’s how it feels. There are things I’ve experienced in life which don’t get old - quite a few, actually! - and that is definitely one of them.
It can be murderously difficult getting all the bits together, but genuinely, it is joyous. It’s wonderful. Absolutely terrific. I haven’t got an ounce of cynicism in me about that process.
I think it is… utterly thrilling. And if that’s something you want to do, don’t let anyone tell you ‘you know that really is a proper job, and you have to work very hard, and it’s probably not as exciting as it seems…’ yes it bloody is! It’s Doctor Who stories! It’s brilliant. I do not ever get tired of that.
Is that true for Brian and Will, too?
WC: Completely inspiring. You can have a really bad few days, but you look at it, even tonight, just to hear what everyone else has done, all of it coming together is hugely inspiring.
BM: I find it quite addictive, because you get to tell such huge stories, on such a big scale. You know how much people care about the show and you really want it to be as good as it can possibly be. Everyone wants it to be the best ever, and we get amazing writers, amazing actors… it’s a fantastic feeling.
What was the first episode you made of Doctor Who?
SM: Well, the first one I wrote, when Russell was running Doctor Who, was called The Empty Child. It was a little gas mask boy, crying for his mummy. And the first one when I was Excessing it, was The Eleventh Hour.
Well, The Eleventh Hour was the first one that went out - the first one with Matt Smith in. The first one we actually made was the Weeping Angels one, The Time of Angels and Flesh and Stone.
That seems ages ago to you, doesn’t it? That’s really appallingly old. My kids were saying ‘we’re watching one of the old Doctor Who’s, daddy!’ and I was thinking ‘brilliant! They’ve finally taken my advice! Which one is it?’… The Girl in the Fireplace. That’s not old!
All these episodes are really complex. How do you plan them? Where do you plan them? Do you have a lair?
SM: I should have a lair… Maybe something underground… Sorry, I’m distracted now thinking about designing my lair…
Yes, you do plot out… actually, do you know, one thing we did this year is to not write things down. Get to the point where you have memorised every episode you’re going to do, and what’s going to happen, where Clara is, where Danny is. We never really had a document, really. It keeps it flexible in your head.
I have this fear when I write things down, that having written it, I will stick to it. I don’t really want to. I want to think it’s still flexible. But I’m definitely getting some work done on that lair…
Do you ever make very, very, very late changes? On set even? How down to the wire?
SM: We don’t make huge late changes, because you can’t. It’s a huge, military show. Down to the wire…? Oh my GOD, yeah!
How much do you listen to fan’s feedback?
SM: It’s an interesting question. There was a little Doctor Who fan in Scotland, who wrote in repeatedly, to the point that the BBC complained about him. We recently cast him as the Doctor… Never let anyone tell you it doesn’t work! That was the most successful letter-writing campaign in history!
It’s a hard one. As most Doctor Who fans would be the first to say that they are not typical members of the audience. And the voice of the fan is in my head - I sit awake at night worrying about UNIT dating… You don’t even know what that means! Personally, I think Captain Yates was dating Osgood.
I think, I keep saying this, there’s the ‘fans’, and there’s the other 100% of the audience. That’s what you have to make it appeal as; a huge mainstream hit. I do believe it’s true that that’s what they want Doctor Who to be. They don’t want it to be a minority thing, they want it to be a huge thing. That does occasionally mean that you make decisions fans don’t like as much. But, I tell you the truth: you listen to a good idea.
Out of all the planets the Doctor has visited, which is your favourite?
Will Cohen: One of Steven’s planets… Silence in the Library is one of them! We won an award for it! There’s this wonderful awards do in America, in Los Angeles, and they voted that as the best environment in a TV show, which was real honour for us. It was the first time we’d won for Doctor Who and we were chuffed.
SM: Just to do with the ingenuity of our former producer Marcus Wilson, there was a time when we were filming Asylum of the Daleks and the Doctor’s running around on top of a snowcapped mountain.
The reason I love that is nothing to do with the snow or anything like that, but because Marcus was out shooting the cowboy episode, A Town Called Mercy, and he looked out of his window and thought ‘hang on, there’s snow up there! Instead of doing that in the studio, I’m just going to phone up the Doctor Who production office and send them out!’ I thought that was just an example of brilliant producing.
WC: I’m very fond of Gallifrey, too, when we went there for the Time War. To go over Arcadia…
SM: But what about the one we’re going to do for the first story next year…?
You can’t just say that! Can you tell us any more?
Next year also marks ten years since the programme returned to our screens. Are there any plans to celebrate that?
SM: If you think about it, isn’t it quite a complex message to put out there; ‘do you know that show that was 50 years old a little while ago, and we wouldn’t stop going on about it? Well, now it’s ten…’
I could be lying. My worry is always… my worry about the 50th, which seemed to come off, and people seemed to be really really happy, is how many times are you going to have a huge celebration of the show? You have to stop applauding yourself at some point, I think.
Brian Mincin: I think, between about 50 and 60, you start celebrating in fives, don’t you?
Through series 8, the theme is people ‘dying… but not really dying’. That’s something you can see a bit of in your previous episodes; in Silence in the Library they weren’t dead they were in a computer, for example. We haven’t seen much final ‘before their time’ death…
SM: Were you watching that episode?
Exactly! There were lot’s of surprising deaths in that. Is that a theme that will continue? People dying before their time?
SM: Dear God! I was told directly by Russell ‘you’ve written six episodes of Doctor Who and not killed anyone’ - he meant fictional characters! - so, I don’t know. Do you know what? I’m sentimental. I am, I’m sentimental, and I actually quite like people not doing - in real life and in fiction!
If I watch a show and somebody dies, I always want them to come back to life at the end. Like in The Lion King! Where’s his dad? Ever since that damn film Bambi, I’ve been saying ‘fiction has control over death’! Bring nice people back!
How did you arrive at Peter Capaldi’s costume as the Doctor?
BM: When Peter was finding his outfit, I think he tried on every form of clothing that was possible. We were getting these hilarious photos of different versions of what the Doctor could be. He was very single-minded in his attempt to try on every different outfit in London…
SM: The ones he didn’t like, he just stood in the photographs like [grumpy expression]. But the ones he did like he did [strikes a ‘Doctor’ pose]!.
BM: He didn’t quite go back to the very first one he tried, but close.
Who made the final decision on the costume? Was it Peter Capaldi?
SM: Yes. We all loved it, it looked great, but the job of that costume is to make Peter Capaldi feel like the Doctor. I think it’s total nonsense to impose a costume on somebody. They have to sort of find it, make it part of their Doctor.
Obviously, we turned down the clown suit… And the gorilla mask… we’d ask him to think again…
What’s happening with River Song?
SM: Well… She’s dead!
You will admit that it’s a troubled relationship which begins in that way. Which goes from death, to a wedding where one of them is a miniaturised version of themselves in a robot duplicate… it’s not normal. Where can we go from there?
I said to Russell, he was just asking what was going on because he does, I said that I think that’s it, and we’re not going to do that again and he said ‘Noooo! Noooo! Capaldi and Kingston! It’ll be a sex storm!’
So when you see an episode called ‘Sex Storm’, written by Russell T Davies… I don’t know. She was a great character, I loved her, but I always worried that you might be bringing something back who’s day is done. Said he. As the Executive Producer of the 51-year-old show…!
Does the Doctor have a name?
SM: Well… he must have one. But it cannot be known by anyone. His name’s the Doctor, that’s the name he’s chosen.
But yes, in the fiction of the show. At some point he had a name that for whatever reason we may speculate on, he has completely abandoned. But you know, I wouldn’t feel entitled to make one up. I pretended I was going to once by calling an episode The Name of the Doctor, but surprisingly enough it was a lie!