On Saturday 25th August, as part of the Media Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival, the Edinburgh Filmhouse played host to a sold out screening of the first episode of the new season of Doctor Who hosted by Steven Moffat, now in his third year as executive producer. Sworn to secrecy of major plot points, what we present here is an overview of the episode, revealing nothing that is not online already from other sources, which will be updated soon with some of Moffat’s conversation following the screening.
It is a stated intention of this season that every episode will be a standalone event, and certainly Asylum of the Daleks starts in a big way, with the still Doctor operating in stealth mode following his convenient “death” on the shores of Lake Silencio. Even a dead man is still in demand, and a following a brief glimpse of the ruins of Skaro, the Doctor, Amy and Rory find themselves captured and brought to the Parliament of the Daleks.
Having reinvented them with the help of Mark Gatiss in Victory of the Daleks, Moffat has said a goal was to make the Doctor’s most frequent – and most frequently defeated – adversaries threatening again, and here he is only partially successful. The traditional Daleks, though present in vast numbers, both in the traditional modern design and the new paradigm with the presence of the Supreme Dalek, are not the focus of the story, but the continuing evolution of the species has given rise to a new variant that gives rise to a sense that danger could be anywhere that has not been felt since Terror of the Autons.
Despite the publicity that promises every type of Dalek ever seen in the show, that detail is incidental, and this is in no way an attempt to chart the Doctor’s history with them. If anything it will be a fan challenge to spot the different models as they lurk firmly in the background, though a prominent inclusion of what are presumably the modern equivalent of the Robomen from The Dalek Invasion of Earth allows them to get more hands-on than usual.
To say that performances are excellent all around is superfluous; Matt Smith, Karen Gillan (never more beautiful as when on a fashion shoot) and Arthur Darvill have been a perfect team since The Eleventh Hour. Their rapport is undiminished, showing new aspects to their complicated relationship and here directly addressing an unspoken truth that has hung over Rory through his entire relationship with Amy. The sole guest performer (uncredited as this advance copy did not have closing titles) was also a surprising and effective contributor to the mechanics of the episode.
Directed by Nick Hurran, who handled the sixth season episodes The Girl Who Waited and The God Complex and will return this year for the last episode before the Christmas special, The Angels Take Manhattan, there are moments of vast scope, in the opening panaroma and the Parliament of the Daleks itself, as seen in the trailers for the season, but also sinister atmosphere in the darkened underground chambers of silent Daleks and the pursuit through corridors, though it is unfortunate that after the grand first half much of the remainder of the episode is spent on that traditional fixture of the show.
Andrew Collins – First of all, this series. You described your first as a roller-coaster, the second as a ghost train. Am I pushing to get you to do one for the series we’re about to see?
Steven Moffat – I think this time I’ve abandoned fairground rides for movie posters. Our idea this time was, when we had the pitch meetings for the various stories, I would say “Will this really work for us? Tell me the movie poster. Tell me the title, what’s on the poster and what’s the log-line. Tell me that. Let’s have a blockbuster every single week, no two-parters, every single week is going to be a blockbuster and let’s not have the cheap episode, let’s just not make one, let’s make them all huge.” It has caused some problems, but I think it has worked really well for us. It’s the year of the blockbuster.
AC – If there is kind of a schism in the Doctor Who fans, kind of those between those who prefer the wrapped up single episode and those who prefer the big arcs that go across a season, obviously you can’t please everybody all the time. You have to make the bold decisions for those who are writing and making the programme. It must be impossible to ignore the reaction from your beloved fans, who are so passionate, who are so into this thing. They kind of feel they own it, which everyone understands, you understand that as a fan yourself. Can you shut it out, and just do what you want?
SM – The first thing you have to do, as Russell said when he was doing it back at the beginning, is shutting out those fan voices, and forgive me, because you are a fan yourself, so you have to close your own whiney little voice saying ‘but in 1972…’ which goes on all the time, believe me. As solidarity, I will send out messages to fans in the script in ridiculous references to Exxilon or Spiridon, mispronounced, I know. The actress didn’t see that episode. You absolutely have to address the mainstream audience and the kids, and people who watch it in the families.
The funny thing is, if you asked the dedicated Doctor Who fans what I should do with their opinions, they would say “Ignore us, we want it to be a huge mainstream hit.” We had 15 years of it being an obscure thing, and people thought we were strange for watching it – they still do – so I think they’re very happy with me doing that. In a way, the forums and these obsessive fan conversations, I shouldn’t listen to them, that’s eavesdropping. They should be allowed to sit and complain about Doctor Who. What is the point of loving something if you can’t complain about it incessantly?
AC – The planning stage, we see the tip of the iceberg. All the stuff that goes on beforehand, when you’re planning the entire series, how much of that goes on? How much do you sit in rooms with the other writers, the other people who work on the programme, before a single nut and bolt are put together?
SM – There is a lot of talking, but what we don’t tend to do on this show, which you would do on most shows, we even do on Sherlock, is have all the writers in the same room at the same time. I kind of think that’s not the point of Doctor Who, especially not this year. The point — as I say to every writer that ever comes along to this show, I always, always say, treat it like you own it, treat it like it’s yours. Don’t think this is a democracy, think you’re in charge, and every writer who has written a great Doctor Who script has done that, swaggered in and tre
ated it like their own, just like the directors, like Nick Hurran’s very individual vision of that episode.
I thought that was a beautifully shot episode, and he went off on his own to do that, and was incredibly creative with it. I think you’ve got to treat it like you own it, so I don’t want them all thinking they’re part of a committee. In terms of the planning, there are three foreign shoots in the first five episodes, which is sort of ludicrous, so the amount of planning in that is epic and it’s continuing to this day. We’re still making the later episodes of next year’s run.
AC – Over the last couple of days there’s been a lot of debate about television. You Tube have a presence here at the Festival, and basically the debate is old fashioned television versus new fashioned ways of viewing stuff. Now it strikes me that this programme is one which shows, just like the Olympics did, but in a different way, because it’s more regular, what old fashioned telly can do still, which is unite an awful lot of people, and then we were talking before about people actually sitting down to it when it goes out, and you were saying it’s amazing how high the percentage is of people who don’t watch it when it goes out.
SM – I think if you count people who timeshift the show later in the same evening, about an hour or so, actually it’s probably about half or under half of the audience who watch at the exact moment it goes out. We no longer watch television when television schedulers tell us we should, and that’s right. Your bookcase doesn’t tell you when you read a book. A piece of furniture shouldn’t be telling you when you are going to be entertained, and that’s all a television set is. So yes, that’s inevitably proper and right.
The new form of television, we’re just talking about as new, how new is it? It’s just a different way of delivering the content to the viewer, and more convenient. I don’t suppose my kids make much of a distinction between You Tube and television. They watch television on their computers, they watch You Tube on television. It’s just a way of watching it. Do books really change because you read them on your Kindle? It’s not such a big deal. It’s exciting, it’s brilliant and it’s convenient, but I don’t think it changes the job of making television.
AC – It is refreshing to hear you speak like this about it, because you are of an age where you definitely grew up when television was on when it was on, and yet you are not crippled by nostalgia for the old ways of doing things, you embrace the new technology.
SM – Everyone in this room probably has endured the thing of being out at the shops and you know your parents are being dull, and wondering if you’re going to get home in time to see Doctor Who. I’m so glad that children of this generation don’t have to endure that sadism on behalf of their parents. I don’t think my kids have any notion of scheduling at all, I don’t think they have any notion of television channels either, I think they just watch what they want to watch.
AC – It is event television. I think that is something we should all become grateful for and cherish. There is this thing that really matters to a lot of people, and it’s coming back and people want to know what’s going to be in it, and you drop these very enticing trails that just hint at what’s coming. It’s heartwarming, I think. Not everyone will want to watch Doctor Who, some will think it’s not for them, it’s not their kind of programme –
SM – They’re wrong.
AC – There are some people who don’t watch it, but I genuinely think they should be here to see the effect that television can have, especially on a big screen.
SM – That was cool, wasn’t it?
Audience questions – Do you think one of the reasons for the enduring popularity of the Doctor as a character, why almost fifty years later he still appeals, is that in an age of distrust of governments, distrust of banks, the popularity of the anti-hero in the media, he is the one uncompromised hero who will always stand up, who will always do the right thing, who will always forgive, and who will never let anybody go?
SM – I sometimes wonder what that halcyon era when we trusted governments was. When people went around saying, “oh, bankers, they’re great, aren’t they?” I wasn’t alive during that time. Is the Doctor a hero? The Doctor is popular over such a time because he’s always been a sort of big child. He’s not even a proper hero. He doesn’t even have an agenda to go and sort things out, he’s not that pompous, he just wants to go to lunch, or to the beach, or a fairground, and happens to find someone in trouble.
I always said that he starts every story as a passerby and ends it as the last man standing. That’s not a perfect hero, he’s not trying to be one, he’s not that pompous. He not trying to fix the universe and keep everybody safe at all. He’s honestly just trying to go about his business, but his conscience and hearts will not allow him to see anyone in trouble without trying to help them, and we sort of adore that, but he’s far too irresponsible to be a professional hero.
As to the enduring appeal of Doctor Who, it is obviously something I’ve thought about a lot. It’s a weird thing, Doctor Who. When kids watch it, and I’m talking particularly about kids because that’s when they begin, they don’t watch it passively. The moment they start watching it, they start inventing their own monsters, their own Doctor costume, possibly their own plan to become the Doctor, their own TARDIS control room. Most shows, you just sit back and watch. This one, people actually want to make it for themselves. Most shows sort of show-off, say ‘look how marvellous we are,” this is the one that says, “go on, have a go.” In extreme cases, you end up running it!
It is absolutely true David Tennant became an actor in order to become the Doctor. I’m not sure he realised it was going to work out quite as well as it did! I think that, though, is the enduring appeal of Doctor Who, it’s the one that invites you in, the one that says “come and have a look behind the scenes, come and have a go yourself.” That’s what makes it a national treasure, beyond just a great television show, a national treasure. It interacts with the best of its audience.
AC – And more so now than ever, most shows are aimed at a specific demographic, because that’s how commercial ventures run. Yours is aimed at a huge demographic.
SM – It’s a good demographic, isn’t it? Aim a show at absolutely everyone! How did it take television so long to come up with what cinema invented so long ago?
AQ – Steven, you keep appearing to be slightly complaining about budgets –
SM – No! When did I complain about budgets? You don’t get to say that. You don’t make up what I didn’t just say in order to move ahead. I said the schedule and the pressure of trying to do Doctor Who, on any budget, including Avatar’s, is horrific. I’m never, ever going to say I’ve got enough. That’s like asking would you like to be more happy. Do you have enough happiness? No. Do you have long enough to live? No. Of course I’m going to say yes, I want more money.
I think Doctor Who is incredibly well looked after by the BBC, they are incredibly aware of its Crown Jewel status, that it’s not merely a show that’s successful now, that I truly believe could be a show that outlives everybody in this room. Everybody. It could carry on that long. It doesn’t just make money now, it will make money forever, so it’s a wonderful, wonderful thing. There has, I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but there has been some sort of financial crisis recently. I heard it mentioned. And so, obviously all sorts of things have to happen. Doctor Who is incredibly well looked after. I have no complaints. Except, of course, I’d like more money, to be happier, thinner, and more handsome.
AQ – On a scale of one to eleven, how excited should we be for the fiftieth anniversary?
SM – Fifty!
AQ – With the phenomenon growing now in America, do you ever see it being transformed to the big screen as a movie?
SM – It looked quite big to me. I think there’s often been talk about a movie. I’m sure that we should do one, but the one thing I always say, it can’t ever be allowed in any way to interfere with the television show. That is the mothership, that is the thing that will go on forever. Now, what do you want? If you suddenly replaced, I remember when they were bringing back Star Trek, and they decided at the last minute to make it movies instead of television shows, and I was thinking, “so instead of twenty two a year, we get one every four or five years?” So I wouldn’t ever want that. The absolute most important thing for Doctor Who will always be the TV show. Any other spin off, it would be great to see the TARDIS on the big screen, unbelievably exciting, but not in the way of the show.
AQ – Congratulations on a really strong episode. How much of the conception of this episode was a response to the more conservative reaction that the paradigm redesign got, and Victory of the Daleks, the direction it was going?
SM – I think it was a more general response to “What do we do with the Daleks?” They just became, and I think I contributed to that, cosier every time, as I kept saying, the most reliably defeatable monsters that Doctor Who has. Kids are supposed to be frightened of Daleks, but they take them to bed! And they’ve become sort of like buses, or taxis or pillar boxes. Is there a way we can just make them a bit scarier? Get them back to being more monstery? I’m hoping, my fondest hope is that kids would leave their Daleks outside their bedroom doors rather than tolerate the mad little bastards. That was it, it was a response to that. There’s a tremendous temptation to go kitsch or sweet with Daleks, and you shouldn’t. You should remember they’re insane tanks.
AQ – When you started writing Doctor Who was it your full intention to send adults diving behind the sofa with all your monsters?
SM – I’m a wuss. I don’t watch horror films because I am too frightened of them. I accidentally took my son to see The Woman in Black and I was absolutely terrified. I wanted to go and see The Muppets one. I was singing Muppets songs during it to calm myself down. Yeah, I think Doctor Who has the distinction of being the show with the utterly, utterly irresponsible job of terrifying children who can’t cope with it. I love that! Try pitching that now – “We’re going to terrify seven year olds.” Love it! So, yes, I’m glad that you’re jumping behind the sofa. But I always think that with Doctor Who you should enjoy jumping behind the sofa, and I think kids do. They’re frightened of it, but they’re frightened of it rollercoaster style. It’s the best fun in the world to be frightened of a Doctor Who monster and then Matt Smith will defeat it by being silly. What more do you want out of life?
AC – That’s public service broadcasting for you.
AQ – You were fortunate enough to take over the show as showrunner and you had a new Doctor to work with and you had new companions to work with. Do you think the show would have gone in a different direction if you had taken over at a time when David was still there or Catherine was still there? Do you think it would have evolved differently?
SM – Certainly, because it would have been carried on with the incumbent Doctor, as it were. You know, it wasn’t something we embraced with great enthusiasm. It was quite frightening when we realised, okay, so it’s the entire cast and the entire behind the scenes teams were changing over at the same time. It was quite worrying.
Generally speaking, when the Doctor regenerates, there’s someone there for him to prove he’s the Doctor to, so it was quite hard with the Doctor and Amy thinking, well actually, she’s new, he’s new. That was why I made her a little girl at the beginning, so I had someone for him to prove his Doctorness to. So, yes, it would have been different, but Doctor Who is always different and yet always the same. Who knows what would have happened. I tried very hard to get David to stay on, but he said no. I told him all my ideas, he left.
AQ – Is Doctor Who ever going to be a woman?
SM – Can I just ask, how many people, and honest answer, not the answer you feel you ought to give, not the answer you want to think is right, how many people would continue watching and believe it was the same person if the Doctor turned into a woman? How many people would stop watching it? It’s neither pro or anti feminism, it’s just purely, would you still…
AQ – I could take it for just for a couple of episodes or something like that.
SM – I don’t think that would be fair to the young lady involved, would it? You tried, love, out? It is a part of Time Lord lore that it can happen, it was mentioned, and I put the reference in actually, in The Doctor’s Wife, to the fact that a Time Lord could potentially turn into a woman, but…who knows. The more often it’s talked about the more likely it is to happen some day, I suppose, would be the answer to that.
AC – Imagine if James Bond and Doctor Who became a woman in the same year?
SM – Harder to explain the continuity on James Bond. M is sitting there, and in she walks, and says, “Oh, you too.”
Special thanks to Steven Moffat, Andrew Collins, the Edinburgh Filmhouse and the Media Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival