It was in Journey’s End that Davros made the Doctor face himself, branding him “The man who keeps running, never looking back because he dare not, out of shame,” but after a year of asking himself the question “Am I a good man?” the measure of acceptance indicated by the tagline of the ninth season, “born to save the universe” is shaken to the core by an encounter with a frightened young boy.
The universe is a very big place, but the Doctor has been travelling for a long, long time. Inevitably, there will be a time when he arrives in a place he should never have allowed himself to be, a place where the TARDIS should have known never to materialise, a planet it has visited before but never so early but which should immediately be recognisable to anyone who knows the history of the show.
Above the battlefield a propeller driven biplane launches itself into an attack run with laser blasters, while below two soldiers wear modern headphones but carry bow and arrow, a discontinuity described forty years ago and a generation later by Harry Sullivan as a “war of attrition, only backwards.”
While the final anniversary season of Matt Smith’s Doctor acknowledged previous adventures, the reappearance of the Great Intelligence, the Ice Warriors revealed to be a race of stick insects beneath their armour, this is something different, the Doctor in an impossible situation which he himself conceived but never considered he would encounter, where any action taken can only cause more damage than his unintentional presence already has.
This is Skaro, torn apart by the war between the Thals and the Kaleds which has lasted generations and might continue indefinitely into the future where the Doctor will find himself confronted by a dilemma he once posed as a hypothetical question while acting as an agent for the Time Lords, a mission which would act as a catalyst for the Time War which would eventually – apparently – wipe out both the Time Lords and the Daleks.
A bold and hugely promising opening to the ninth season of Doctor Who, The Magician’s Apprentice is written by Steven Moffat and directed by Blink‘s Hettie McDonald, the first half of a story which will conclude in The Witch’s Familiar, only the second time a season has opened with a two part adventure since its return in 2005.
With a plotline conscious of the long rivalry between the Doctor and Davros (played again by The Fall‘s Julian Bleach) but specifically drawn from their first meeting in Genesis of the Daleks, the Doctor’s dialogue even recalling the contradictions of Tom Baker (“I try never to understand, it’s called an open mind”), much of it is a huge fanboy gift (“three versions of Atlantis,” anyone?), though knowing Doctor Who fans many are still likely to spit on it.
The rest of us will instead enjoy a whirlwind tour around the Maldovarium, the Shadow Proclamation and Karn; while there is no sign of Dorium, even his head, Claire Higgins briefly reprises her role as Ohila, high priestess of the Sisterhood of Karn from The Night of the Doctor, another part of the anniversary celebrations.
On Earth, Clara (Jenna Coleman) is summoned by Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) to assist in a global crisis, the perpetrator of which swiftly reveals herself to be Missy (Michelle Gomez). Working in the absence of the Doctor as she did in Flatline, Clara once again reveals herself to be a much more proficient operator without her mentor, indicating that much of the problem of the character has been her role in the series: she works better as a companion than as a vague story arc.
Her initial appearance with her childish balloon head aside, Missy is considerably less of a tiresome pantomime dame than her screeching persona through the season eight finale, and ironically it is in her dealings with Clara that both become more interesting characters, Missy in particular discussing matters which have been speculated upon for decades and delivering her answers in a typically blunt fashion which fails to mask her genuine concern for the Doctor.
And where exactly is the traveller in all this? While Alex Kingston’s River Song may not be due to return to the show until the 2015 Christmas special, whereupon she will no doubt make her trademark spectacular entrance, Mr Song has learned a trick or two from the wife in that respect; just like the episode, Peter Capaldi has turned into a huge crowdpleaser.
Beyond dropping the grouchy, the Doctor and Davros have never been better together, older, tired, talking rather than shouting but still angry, still opposed in every viewpoint, leading to a shocking cliffhanger like no other before, which in itself is an achievement for a show now fifty two years past original broadcast.
Demonstrating Moffat’s continued ability to take the commonplace and create something uncanny and sometimes downright terrifying, if this vintage show can continue to challenge both its creative team and its audience and reinvent itself in this way while still remaining faithful to the core ideals that have given it such longevity, there is genuine hope that this may turn out to be an overdue vintage year.
Premiered at the Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival on the evening of Thursday 27th August to a capacity crowd, executive producers Steven Moffat and Brian Minchin were interviewed by Andrew Collins then took questions from the audience, of whom more than a handful had already proudly confirmed they had been watching the show since the days of William Hartnell.
Andrew Collins – Seriously, how is it, watching it with everybody?
Steven Moffat – Nerve wracking. It is. I am of the opinion that everybody here wants to be brutally murdered by Michelle Gomez, which is a strange thing.
AC – Have you seen it on a big screen, that one?
SM – Yeah, I saw it in the dub and with the listings magazines a few days ago, but that’s been the most exciting version, it’s the first time we’ve watched it with fans, so that’s the important one.
AC – The weird thing I always think about Doctor Who whenever we do one of these events is that all we have to do is watch it, and like it, and criticise it, but you actually have to make it. You have to continually make it, continually keep the standard up, find new ways of surprising everybody, find clever ways of bringing back things that have been in it before, and especially with the first episode.
SM – The difficulty has not eluded us.
AC – It’s an amazing thing. I think genuinely from the bottom of our hearts we thank you for putting yourselves through what must be an awful lot of agony to get that thing out there.
SM – Well the funny thing for us is we’re still thick in it because we’re still making episode twelve, we’re about to make the Christmas special, we haven’t stopped. We had one notion to show episode two as well tonight but it’s not quite finished yet so you don’t get that. So it’s not about to stop, is it?
AC – We were talking earlier on about how there’s a point in the day when all the stuff that everybody’s been doing, you need to look at, so you get sent stuff.
Brian Minchin – Every day we get sent more Doctor Who.
SM – Today’s pictures were particularly good, I thought, but we’re not going to talk about that.
AC – But at the same time that allows you to get excited because it’s being done by people that you trust, and lots of them, and then you get to have a little look at it at the end of the day. So have you had a good day today?
SM – Yeah, I think it’s been good.
BM – We’re filming in Fuerteventura today which is why Peter Capaldi can’t be here. He did want to be here. But yes, it’s going good.
AC – Where was that scene sitting outside, at the bottom of the steps? Where was that filmed?
SM – That was in Tenerife.
AC – So the big thing, other than Davros and the Daleks, is the cliffhanger ending. So that’s part one, the next episode is part two of that story, which is a different attack this time around. When did that come upon you?
SM – We did it once before with The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon, and it worked very well. I don’t know quite why we did, we just sort of did, and we wanted to do more two parters this year. It does allow you to unfold the story in a slightly different way. It’s sort of more detailed as it goes by. And anything like that, “children’s favourite Doctor Who about to shoot a kid in the face…” Is it dark? A little.
AC – Are they all two parters in this run?
SM – We’re being a bit cryptic. There’s two parters, there’s linked stories, there’s ones that will surprise you in either direction.
AC – And dare we assume that there is an arc?
SM – There is an arc, yes.
AC – Just checking. I’m not trying to trick you into anything. You’re too clever for that. The relationship between the Doctor and Clara is presumably going to develop this series.
SM – Well, they’ve got to the point where as a direct result of her interactions with the Doctor her boyfriend is dead , so they’ve got more free time to travel. That’s the way life goes, by the way, when you’re finished that’s roughly what’s going to happen, that’s a little bit more time freed up. I’m very Scottish today.
But the friendship, which we sort of see happening in the last Christmas one, has been much… really there was a sort of a standoff because Clara, as the slight control freak and her best friend turns into somebody else entirely, which you don’t have to be much of a control freak for that to be a bit off the range, and the Doctor is sort of trying to pretend he’s an aloof alien and not really interested in human beings and doing it very badly. So now they’re not really bothered with that, they’re just being the best possible friends.
And in a no-sexual, non-creepy way, the Doctor has a tremendous crush on Clara, he thinks she’s just the best thing ever. So all that’s to the fore now, as opposed to where it was before where we were sort of in denial about that. We got a lot of fun out of that for a whole series but we’re not doing that any more.
AC – Well, fun, in that one, obviously, there’s stuff going on, and then there’s the Doctor on a tank with a guitar. When you are, as all writers must, sitting at your laptop alone, unable to think of anything brilliant, and then you suddenly go “I know, put him on a tank.”
SM – I think we were talking about the fun of keeping him off stage for a while, because the Doctor’s offstage presence is a very powerful thing. The moment he’s not there, everybody’s talking about it. That’s quite entrancing. And if you’re going to do it, you better come on doing something unexpected.
Peter rather fancied the idea of playing the electric guitar. I think he meant a bit in the TARDIS, I don’t think he realised he’d be on a tank. But that’s a great moment, I love that. If you listen carefully he’s actually playing the Doctor Who theme. Never knowingly under-tarty, us lot.
AC – Did I hear some Nick Cave in the background?
SM – Well done, that’s a very good spot.
AC – Is there an average day when the thing’s in production, rolling along? Is there a shape to your day?
BM – Well, Peter can ask what kind of tank he should be on when he enters the castle playing guitar.
AC – So you have to make that decision, what kind of tank?
SM – I can’t remember what kind of tank we ended up with, I’m not a tank expert, but I remember Michael Pickwoad saying “well you don’t want a Centurion, they don’t handle well.” At some point our utterly brilliant designer Michael Pickwoad says something like that at every tone meeting. “Well of course chimneys didn’t have steps like that on the interior.” He’s the most educated man, I think, of about seven hundred different lifetimes, including driving various different tanks and being able to assess their maneouverability. But he doesn’t seem like that at all, he’s rather a gentleman, but if you needed a tank, he could drive them.
AC – We were chatting earlier on about how to actually measure the success of them. Obviously you had very good ratings for the first episodes of the last series when it was on, when it premiered on the BBC, that’s something you can measure. It’s not so easy to measure it around the world, and there are other ways, as we were talking about, of people getting hold of things. It’s quite hard to quantify. A lot of it is kind of felt.
SM – What was your stat on the sales of t-shirts?
BM – Four million t-shirts?
AC – A lot of t-shirts.
SM – There is evidence that occasionally people might be watching it by other means. A thing called the Internet. It’s really going to catch on. I have no idea about that kind of thing. But we actually don’t know how many people are seeing the show. Nobody really knows and they shouldn’t be doing it illegally and we hate them all, but we don’t. But we do. But yes, it is an epically successful show, of course, yes.
I was just sitting down tonight thinking, the fact that we’ve had the fiftieth anniversary quite recently obscures the fact that the new show is quite old, it’s ten years old, and you put these tickets on sale and they sell out in no time at all, it’s still huge, every newspaper still writes about it. Shows don’t do that after ten years. They gently decline. Doctor Who has gently declined to gently decline. We carry on. It’s amazing, it’s a startling thing.
AC – I’ve spent a couple of days at the TV festival over at the conference centre, and there’s a kind of mood, as I’m sure people have picked up, of people being staunch about the defence of the BBC. I can’t think what more the BBC could do.
SM – And yet they do so much more. Let’s be clear. I think it’s fair to say there is only one broadcaster in the world that would have come up with and transmitted – as a good idea – Doctor Who. What’s the spaceship gonna look like? You’re gonna love this. Pitch that at NBC. Pitch that nowadays. It’s just insane. Is he going to be a young, dashing hero? Sometimes.
So yes, it is a wonderful example of the kind of show, as is Bake Off, as is everything David Attenborough has ever done, all those things. There is no other broadcaster so madly varied and so genuinely mad. Can you imagine what the world would be like without all of that insane variety? What will we bake next? You can’t even taste the cakes.
I think a very small number of people think the BBC is a bad idea and a huge number of people think the BBC is a wonderful idea, sadly the small number of people are all in government, so that’s given us a slightly unbalanced perspective on the matter, but if you haven’t read or heard Armando Iannucci’s speech, I wouldn’t normally go around saying “read the McTaggart” because I like you, but this McTaggart speech he gave at the beginning of the festival is epic, it’s incredibly, and it’s so on point and it’s so insightful, you’ll be both laughing and air punching, which is what I like to do when reading a speech. So I strongly recommend it.
AC – I would like the government to be able to see us all today.
SM – I bet they are watching! Them government people!
AC – If you’ve got a good question, put your hand up in the air. Or a bad one!
Audience Question – Do you find it harder to make single episodes or episodes that are joined together week after week?
AC – I think you become more efficient when you do two joined together, because we wouldn’t have gone abroad for just one episode, I don’t think, but then again that makes it harder because you’re going abroad. I think we’ve done a lot of it this year because it’s just a new challenge for us, it’s given us a new sort of storytelling, it’s allowed us to build the big cliffhangers, and it does let Michael Pickwoad our designer and our directors to do bigger sets.
SM – It allows us to make a movie but it also requires us to make a movie. It gives and it takes.
AQ – This obviously very specifically addresses the epic Tom Baker scene in Genesis of the Daleks –
SM – You’ve seen Doctor Who before, haven’t you?
AQ – I have! My hand was up for Jon Pertwee. Is this something where you looked for a moment, or is this something you specifically wanted to come back to, because it is one of the most popular stories of the fifty years.
SM – I remember watching that when it first came out and I remember thinking that is the best, the best ever Doctor Who story and I remember thinking how clever Terry Nation was in that having invented the best Doctor Who monster, and to this day it stands as the best Doctor Who monster, he then invented the best Doctor Who villain ever, Davros.
The surprise to me when I went back and watched Genesis of the Daleks, your memory of it is that it’s all about the Doctor and Davros arguing, and it’s one scene. It’s a beautifully written, brilliantly played scene, but it’s actually quite short. And then I went through all the other Davros stories and noticed that every Doctor/Davros scene is great. They’re all great. You can say what you like about the surrounding story, I think they’re all pretty good actually, but every time those two characters are on screen together it’s magic. It’s always, always great, so I thought it was time.
As you’ll see in the next section of this episode two! When did I start calling them sections? You’re getting a lot of screen time between those two. It just works. I don’t know why it works. They’re brilliant.
AQ – One of the interesting things I don’t know if you’re aware of is that the American series Outlander which we haven’t seen in the UK but is filmed in Scotland is a little bit about time travel, and the writer took the idea of basing it in Scotland and time travel from an original version of Doctor Who.
SM – Which story?
AQ – It was the very early one where he picks up a Scotsman. (Diana Gabaldon’s description of the episode in question matches The War Games – editor)
SM – Don’t ever get a job writing the Radio Times listings. I didn’t know that and I haven’t seen Outlander but I think we know some people that have worked on it, so I shall look out. I think we should talk to this little girl…
AQ – Film the next episode in Perth!
SM – Film the next episode in Perth? And where do you live?
AQ – In Perth!
SM – Well that’s an amazing coincidence. Not only do you live in Perth, you would like to see a Doctor Who story set in Perth. We hardly ever leave Cardiff, you know, but I shall circle Perth on the map. Would you like to see Doctor Who near your house?
AC – That wasn’t a question, that was an introduction!
AQ – Do you prefer writing episodes that are set in a historical period, in space or in the distant future?
SM – Generally speaking, I can answer that, I quite to set them in the present day, in the future or in another planet because you don’t have to do any research, but I have nonetheless forced myself to, because I always write on science, science is totally my thing, we never get that wrong.
I finally got the gig writing Doctor Who and I got a story given to me by Russell T saying second world war, and I said “I’m going to have to look stuff up.” Is there a film? Is there a Ladybird book? Come on! And then Madame de bloody Pompadour. So, yeah, I actually slightly prefer the future ones, but do you know visually, when you put him in the present day and we put him in the past, it tends to look better. Big, clanky monsters in Victorian times or Roman times or whatever, it looks kind of great.
Also, we have got a very, very realistic Earth set, better than anything else we’ve got so we like to use it. It’s several million years in the making and we want to get the value out of it.
AC – There are a lot of hands up now so we can’t get to you all. Keep your hands up if you’re question is brilliant.
AQ – After all the sort of initial elation of casting Peter Capaldi, did you then find yourself a bit daunted by having to work closely with somebody whose knowledge of the show and whose love for it could possibly exceed your own?
SM – His love, we can compete on that, just let it be understood: on a face off, on a head to head, he is nowhere bloody near. We had a conversation about Mondasian Cybermen, and I keep shouting at him, I keep saying “but the ones with the metal faces were also from Mondas!” So you now know what an artistic conversation between the showrunner and lead actor sounds like. But no, I’m ahead on knowledge. I am.
He, at a certain point, because he thought it would be great to go and have some kind of life, dash around Glasgow being handsome and dating women and I thought “Hell with that, I’m going to collect Doctor Who trading cards and not make eye contact with anybody else.” And I was right. Ah, the applause of the lonely – I am one of you!
AC – This is the least lonely place I’ve ever been. We must never leave this place.
AQ – I was just wondering about Netflix and Amazon Prime, their big dramas just get dumped and you can watch them all at the same time. Would you ever consider that with Doctor Who because it strikes me that it is something that people just want to watch, we all want to see the next part, but part of it is the excitement of waiting.
BM – Good question. The actual truth is you would have to wait longer to get the series. We’re going to be finishing the series about two weeks before it goes out, so you would have to wait an extra ten weeks for it.
SM – You mean sort of make it specifically for the binge watching?
AQ – I mean that if television is going to go the way we think it’s going to, that is the way to engage your audience, you make something and then just drop it. Would you want to do that with Doctor Who?
SM – These things happen and you go with them, but I can tell you, I can only make one accurate prediction about the way television will go: it will not go the way people think it will. I have been attending the Edinburgh Television Festival many years, and first of all, it’s always “the end of television.”
I remember the first time I came, it was ’89 and I’d just got into television, and they’re saying “well, it’s all wrapped up,” well that was fucking bad timing. And I’ve slowly realised they say that every year. We get all these bright talents at the Edinburgh TV festival and we tell them “this industry is fucked, you might as well leave.” But it’s not, it’s not.
Heaven knows how it will change, but as Armando says in his speech, the main effect of Netflix is to deliver the exact same thing we already have by a very slightly different means, so as evolutions go it’s not exactly gobsmacking, is it? Who knows how it will end up? I kind of think Doctor Who probably belongs once a week. It’s big and it’s loud and it’s mad.
AC – I agree. You mentioned Bake Off. If that was all available in one go, you could sit and watch it and it would all be over. It’s on once a week, Gogglebox is on once a week, Doctor Who is on once a week. I think the revolution, personally, the technological revolution is one thing, but people will continue to do traditional things which will include watching television once a week.
AQ – Looking back on your tenure on the show, on your own episodes apart from The Eleventh Hour, are there any that you think you’re most proud of?
SM – Do you mean the ones I execed, the ones I wrote?
AQ – Since you took over the running of the show.
SM – That’s a good question to ask me in ten years because I’m still in the job. There is a moment in the making of every Doctor Who episode where I think “this is going to be the best thing ever made.” And another moment not too distant from it where I think “this is going to be an unutterable disaster and I’ll have to fake my own death.”
Obviously I was hugely proud of Vincent and the Doctor, I thought that was an amazing episode on a huge and difficult subject, beautifully handled by Richard Curtis in an early evening slot, I thought that was just extraordinary. I was, oddly enough, very proud of The Eleventh Hour because that was seen as a difficult task.
I have to say it was possibly the single most miserable professional engagement I’ve ever had, but The Day of the Doctor actually, that sort of worked, people did like that, that was good. I mean it was Hell to do so I’m quite proud of that.
But just generally, do you know what, the thing that you’re proud of on Doctor Who is that you keep getting the shows out. I think there’s a sense in which, we’re always going on about this, that people kind of take it a little bit for granted that we just make those all the time. Look at the number of different locations, sets, effects, characters you get. Even if you hated Doctor Who, the legitimate thing would be to say “How the Hell do they do all that in that amount of time?”
So I think that the main thing if in ten years in the future when I’m just in a jar that I would be proud of would be the fact that we kept making them. We made a new one every two weeks. It’s very hard. A rather vague answer. So maybe The Day of the Doctor just because it was really stupidly difficult and it’s over.
AQ – In your experience, when an author turns a script in how often does the name they’ve turned it in with make it to the screen?
BM – This year will be a bit different.
SM – We’ve just messed around with the titles this week for this year. Maybe around just under a half, I think.
AQ – And is the final decision with you?
SM – Well, yeah, but that’s not a big revelation. But then I would listen. If someone’s really keen on their title I’ll listen, but frequently the title on the script when I hand it in doesn’t make it either, because you’re trying to think. Sometimes it’s a long time later in the edit that you start to realise what the show’s really about and what it should be called, so your titles are slightly more important than you think they are. They sort of set a tone and create an expectation, and I don’t think you should ever finalise a title until you’ve seen it and heard it and felt it.
BM – Is that why your scripts arrive with an “X?”
SM – I usually do put titles. Sometimes our script editors take my titles off. I hand it in with what I think is a lovely title and it arrives with “X” on the front and I think “was it just marked wrong?” I live in hope of it.
AC – It’s weird how nothing is uninteresting, even a question about titles.
AQ – It’s been ten years since new Who. Are there any special plans in the works for November that you can tease us about?
SM – No. Look, in all honesty, we can’t, even on Doctor Who, irritate the entire viewing public with the fact that the show is fifty years old so long as you don’t count the sixteen years it wasn’t actually on, you can’t have the fiftieth and then a couple years later go “and now it’s the tenth!” People are going to wander off in confusion.
I suppose I can say now that it’s all been a big success, I found the fiftieth from many different points of view, alarming. It was very difficult to do but I also kept saying, “is it right that you make a television show, an actual television show, about how great you are?” That’s sort of, thats’ wrong, you shouldn’t be doing that. I thought about if I was watching an episode of Breaking Bad and this week’s episode was going to be all about the fact that it’s the hundredth episode, and I don’t want to see that, I just want to see him make some meth and kill an innocent child.
So no, we’re not going to keep hitting the anniversaries. You have to get out, because I suspect this is drifting towards other Doctors. The truth is, we had a party, we had loads of Doctors together and all that, they all appeared together in the same Gallifrey, and now that goes back in the box because that’s something you have to keep special and very rare, otherwise it’s just phoning David up and saying “bring the suit with you.” Once you start to realise that’s all we’re doing, the magic goes away. So we can’t. It’s about powering forward, it’s about making sure we get to the hundredth, though I have already informed the BBC I will not be writing it.
AQ – Steven, are you grooming someone to take over from you in the future?
SM – Am I grooming someone? I didn’t expect it to go so dark!
AQ – Or are you making sure that anyone else doesn’t get the job?
SM – That went from grooming people to deliberately sabotaging them! I can confirm I am doing neither of those. When the time comes it will all be taken care of, it will all be marvellous, don’t worry about it, but no, part of my job isn’t grooming or secretly sabotaging, saying “right, I’m just going to change all the spelling in this, you’ll never get that job now, ha ha ha ha!” Well, maybe I do that sometimes.