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WC11: Neil Gaiman, Toby Haynes On Doctor Who’s Sixth Season

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.

Matt Smith as the Doctor

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.”

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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.”

Karen Gillan as Amy

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.


  • Jacob

    Ya know, it’s awesome hearing about these guys being life long fans, but the way it’s looking now, current young fans won’t get that opportunity. Unless they do some major retcon work, the show’s only got a few more years before we’re through all thirteen Doctors. And if they do, there’s that feeling of being cheated. Time-Lord’s have thirteen lives. It’s the only thing that brings any sort of danger to The Doctor’s adventures. The Thirteenth Doctor will actually have to fear for his life, his time (ha) is running out. But removing that limit (or just resetting it more likely) removes that suspense and drama. A Fourteenth Doctor? Leaves a bad taste in my mouth (or mind since I’m not actually reading this aloud).

    (just because I’m bored, I kinda see a way to reset the count. At the end of Series XYZ, The Doctor dies fighting some great force (perhaps The Could’ve Been King? I’ve been intrigued by him and his Army of Meanwhile’s and Neverwere’s since The End of Time). The Doctor, being the greatest Time-Lord of them all (you know it to be true) gets resurrected because everybody else is failing at being awesome enough to beat him/it. They could do it over the course of several specials to avoid having a series without The Doctor present. When he comes back, he’d get a new set of regenerations just like The Master (and probably Rassilon) did.)

    And it’s way cool that who ever is playing The Doctor always has a Sonic Screwdriver on him. (i say “a” because apparently Matt Smith breaks them all the damn time)

  • Fernando Caire

    great write up, I sure as hell can’t wait until the premiere of Gaiman’s episode.

  • Mattimoe1114

    I believe it was recently announced that The Doctor now effectively has unlimited regenerations. I haven’t got a source laying around, still, though. If I recall correctly, it was announced sometime after the end of the most recent series, and that it may be something that is explored, storywise, this season.

  • Jacob

    I know what you’re referring to. He made a remark about unlimited regenerations in The Sarah Jane Chronicles, and it’s all spun from there. I highly doubt they would retcon it outside of the main series.

  • Thad

    “For the first time in its long history, Doctor Who came to the United States to film scenes on location in Utah and Arizona.”

    While this IS the first time it’s filmed on location in Utah and Arizona, the show filmed in America a few years back — it’s just that the Doctor himself wasn’t in those scenes.

  • Thad

    And do you really think it won’t be expanded on in the main series? Do you really think that, should the show be doing well but the (eventual) Thirteenth Doctor want to leave, they won’t come up with an explanation to keep the show going?

    There are ways for Time Lords to get more than 12 regenerations. See also: any episode featuring the Master from 1976 onward.

  • Darrellrbeebe

    I love this show so damn much.
    That is all.

  • Jacob

    You didn’t read everything I said. Thanks for contributing.