“No, look! There’s a blue box, it’s bigger on the inside, it can go anywhere in space and time, sometimes even where it’s supposed to. There’s a bloke in the box, he’s called ‘The Doctor’ and when he gets where he’s going there’s going to be a problem and he’ll try to solve it and he’ll probably succeed because he’s awesome. Now shut up and go watch ‘Blink.’” That’s author Neil Gaiman’s advice to all of you who have yet to start watching “Doctor Who.” No need to get bogged down in the show’s 47-year history (yet), or even feel you need to watch all of New Who (which started in 2005). Just pick a point and start. Don’t worry, you’ll catch on.
Gaiman appeared onstage yesterday for WonderCon’s “Doctor Who” panel and was joined by director Toby Haynes, and sci-fi series guest star extraordinaire, Mark Sheppard (Badger from “Firefly,” Romo Lampkin from “Battlestar Galactica,” Crowley from “Supernatural,” etc. etc.). The panel was moderated with affable, nerdy zeal by Chris Hardwick (“Web Soup,” The Nerdist, “Singled Out,” and bonafide “Doctor Who” geek). That’s Hardwick on the right there dressed as David Tennant. I told you, he’s bonafide. What the panel lacked in leggy gingers, it made up for in raw enthusiasm. Hardwick wasn’t the only “Doctor Who” geek up there.
As Hardwick pointed out, the uniquely long run of “Doctor Who” means that everyone who is currently working on the show, grew up on it, loves it and is emotionally invested in its quality and success. The show has wrapped itself around the collective British consciousness in a way we Americans can’t really fathom. It’s as if the show “Lost” (much watched, much discussed) had been running your entire lifetime and those monsters of your youth that sent you scuttling behind the sofa (let’s say the Gmork or the Labyrinth’s fireys) still showed up on your television every week to scare your kids (and, if you’re being honest, you as well).
When Hardwick asked each panelist their earliest memory of “Doctor Who,” director Toby Haynes credited the show with helping him conquer dyslexia (he powered through the Who novelizations) and that it got him into filmmaking. Haynes, who has the distinction of being the first director to film three consecutive Who stories (last season’s two-part finale, the Christmas special and this season’s two-part opener), was so excited to work on the show that during his first script-meeting he asked for showrunner Steven Moffat’s signature on the 2010 Brilliant Book (a Who fan publication). Similarly, Sheppard described the show’s unparalleled ability to “scare the living you know out of us” and claimed he jumped “35 feet in the air” when asked to appear this season. “It’s the gig of a lifetime” he gushed.
Gaiman elaborated, “Before I learned Greek, Norse or Egyptian mythology, I knew what a Dalek was. I knew what TARDIS stood for (timeandrelativedimensionsinspace).” For better or worse (better I think), “Doctor Who” has become a national (quickly becoming international) myth; an intriguing fairytale more pervasive these days than Grimm or Anderson. While New Who showrunner Russel T. Davies certainly exploited that aspect during his reign, Steven Moffat has dialed the fairytale elements up to eleven, going so far as to dress Amy Pond in a red hood and send her flying in her nightie like Wendy Darling. The Doctor as The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up? Not too much of a stretch.
The panelist were brimming with praise for both Moffat and his cast. Haynes and Gaiman both said that the only constraints Moffat put on their creative processes were those of practicality and money. Sheppard added, “‘Doctor Who’ is truly a work of love and passion…cause it sure ain’t money.” Haynes remarked that when he was younger he would make amateur films with sticky glue and cellotape. “And I still am!” Viewers who are put off by the low-budget aspects of Who (the Daleks look like trashcans) are missing out on the ways in which the creators compensate with storytelling and performance. Though he has received mixed reviews (never from me), Matt Smith was a favorite topic for the panel. Gaiman said, “His take on a line is always better, always odder than what I had intended.” Though Gaiman remarked on Smith’s boyish energy, he added, “He [Smith] feels really, truly ancient. The first Doctor since Tom Baker to seem like he goes all the way back. This. Is. An. Alien.” Referring to the countless effects shots, Haynes observed, “[Smith] has to look at a piece of tape on a stick and conjure the universe with his eyes. And he does it every time.” When it came to Karen Gillan’s performance the gents were a bit more, ahm, red-blooded, praising her ability to run and prompting Gaiman to enthuse, “Karen’s legs are impossible!”
Fair warning, in addition to talking about the show in general, the panelists also spoke specifically about their episodes and some exclusive Con footage that was shown. I’m going to talk about that for the next two paragraphs with the lightest of spoilers (allusions, really). If you wish to avoid any of that, scroll down the page until you see the lovely River Song and her TARDIS journal.
When Hardwick asked Mark Sheppard what he could divulge about his character Canton Everett Delaware III, the actor hemmed and hawed before offering, “He’s American?” The footage (from the two-part season premiere) also revealed Canton Everett Delaware III (I’m sorry, I love the whole thing) to be an ex-fed called upon by president Nixon. “You were my second choice,” Nixon intones. “That’s all right,” Delaware quips. “You were my second choice for president.” Sheppard described the Nixon character as “really scary. Talk about Steven Moffat being able to write monsters.” The season premiere marks the first time in “Doctor Who” history that they’ve filmed on U.S. soil (maybe we needn’t worry too much about the budget). When asked about filming in Monument Valley, UT, Haynes remarked, “You realize why wide angle lenses were invented. In England we use wide lenses to make things look bigger. Here you need them just to get it all in.” This caused Hardwick to crack, “Yeah, America’s bigger on the inside.”
We were shown approximately two minutes of Gaiman’s episode (the fourth of this season and entitled “The Doctor’s Wife”) and though it will feature neither those Weeping Angels nor Alex Kingston (River Song), there will be at least one Ood (ood news!) and the voice of actor Michael Sheen. Gaiman revealed that his episode was meant to be the one right before the season finale last year, but when it came time to film, Moffat told Gaiman “we’ve run out of money, we’re going to make ‘The Lodger’ instead because we can film it in the flat around the corner.” Gaiman smirked as he said, “This season they took the other episodes back around the bike sheds and took their dinner money to make the budget for mine.” Gaiman says he was initially very “cranky” to have to rewrite the episode to include Rory (who was a non-entity around episode 11 last season), but was ultimately delighted because writing for Arthur Darvill proved to be such fun. Gaiman also explained that he considered that “every episode might be someone’s first, so you have to be cognizent of making it approachable.” That being said, he revealed that one of the characters (named Idris) was “an old friend of the Doctor’s with a new face” and the clip we were shown ended with Matt Smith saying ominously, “Those are Time Lords. Lots and lots of Time Lords, somewhere nearby.”
There, sweeties! No more spoilers! I am really over-the-moon about this Gaiman-penned episode not just because Gaiman is one of my favorite authors, but because his best genre (moody, atmospheric fairytale) is perfect for the show. Gaiman specializes in the mirror-world fairytale (over the wall to Faerie, London Below, Coraline’s “Other World”), where the hero is plunged into a new universe with different rules and is forced to shift expectations in order to save the day. Sound familiar?
I’ll leave you with two more treats. First, one more video shown at the Con. This one is pretty much the footage from the trailers you’ve likely already seen with some added cast interviews and commentary.
A little heavy on the hyperbole (“most exciting” “epic scale” “best monsters” “scariest monsters” “darkest days” “the stakes really are higher than ever”) but don’t they look cute in their sunglasses? And, finally, at the Con they gave us a free swag t-shirt (which you can see me modeling here). In the manner of all swag it’s pretty f*cking ridiculous. However, as Hardwick pointed out, you can use it to “nerd pwn your friends.” I wound up with two shirts and am going to mail the extra one (size XL) to the commenter who can best defend “their” chosen Doctor. Mine is Matt Smith. Mark Sheppard and Toby Haynes fancy Tom Baker and Neil Gaiman’s heart belongs to Patrick Troughton. Who’s your pick?
Joanna Robinson used “season” in place of “series” because she’s American and “New Who” in place of “nu-Who” because, well, the latter looks stupid to her.