Neil Gaiman interview: all about writing Doctor Who

Interview Simon Brew 9 May 2011 - 15:52

This weekend’s Doctor Who episode, The Doctor’s Wife, is written by Neil Gaiman. And he spared us some time to talk about it. Geekbumps at the ready…

It’s been a long time coming, but this weekend, the Neil Gaiman-penned episode of Doctor Who, The Doctor’s Wife, is screened. Originally planned for transmission in the last season, the episode got bumped to series six, with some unexpected benefits. And we got a chance to sit down with the mighty Neil Gaiman to talk about it all.

Before the recorder was switched on, we got chatting about how little he’s recognised in person, and how that suits him down to the ground. But that, in his words, “I can get my calls returned”! And we picked things up from there…

It’s not just getting your calls returned, though. You’re of such fame that if it’s announced you’re doing a Doctor Who episode, the Internet melts down!

Yeah! That’s true! But for my point of view, that matters less than the fact that Steven Moffat was reading my blog, and liked my stuff. Which meant that when we got together for dinner, he admitted what we both knew, which was that neither of us was allowed to say. So he said that he would be taking over when Russell (T Davies) left, and I got to say I want to write an episode for you!

And was it that simple?

It really was that simple. But it wouldn’t have been that simple if I hadn’t have come up with an idea. I came up with something that was one of those things where you thought that nobody’s done that before…

This is a planet of junk?

It is. Which for me mostly went back to Totters Lane. I describe it in the script as the Totters Lane at the end of the Universe.

That’s lovely. Because the show’s not been back there in any sense really since the Sylvester McCoy days?

It isn’t Totters Lane [itself], but for me there was a certain… it’s that mad thing where you get somebody who’s a fan. And you want to do everything you’ve ever loved about the show, and you want to do that weird thing where you kind of… There's an analogy that I used a while ago, and I don’t remember if it was originally mine, or originally Terry Pratchett’s. But we’ve both used it in conversation with each other, and are now both using it in interviews, so it’s ours!

When you’re starting off as a young writer, you look at all the stuff that’s gone before and the stuff that’s influenced you, and you reach the ladle of your imagination into this bubbling stew pot of all of this stuff, and you pour it out. And that’s where you start from.

As time goes on, you realise that it’s actually kind of fun to put stuff back in the stew pot. You can throw in a turnip that nobody’s ever seen before. So I loved doing that when I was writing comics a lot, and I loved doing that even with things like 1602. I’m throwing in carrots and things that other people can use if they want to. But I’m not just taking from this thing, I’m going to leave more behind.

And when I was writing my episode of Who, that was one of the things I wanted to do. I wanted to leave a little bit more of the mythos. I wanted to leave a little bit more of the story than I had when I got it. Because that’s fun for other writers, and fun for other places.

And is it fun for you, potentially then, to return to the show? Or is this a one off for you?

You know, it’s weird being interviewed! Because the weird thing about being interviewed is you get asked these questions that you’ve never thought about, and you find out what you think as you answer.

So the person before you, who was from the Radio Times, said are you going to do it again? And I said well, I would love to write another episode of Doctor Who. I loved writing it. And I can think of nothing more fun than doing another 45 minute episode of Doctor Who, that’d be great.

Then I found myself saying something, and realising it was true as I said it. Which was I think I’ll only do it if I come up with an idea that’s better than this one. It’s not like... do I want to become a regular Who writer? No, I don’t want to become a regular Who writer. What I’d love to do is every now and then go oh my God, I’ve got this amazing idea for Doctor Who.

And what’s interesting is, having done this episode, I can now look at some of the ideas I’ve had throughout the course of my life since the age of, ooh, four, for Doctor Who episodes.

This one fed off stuff I’ve been thinking about since I was kid. And doing [some of] that wouldn’t make a good episode, or it would make a good episode, but it wouldn’t throw enough of a weird spanner into things.

There’s stuff where the mystery drives the engine. And the problem with the stuff where the mystery drives the engine sometimes is that every fannish impulse is immediately to go woah, what we want to know is X, Y and Z. So why not do a story with X, Y and Z in? And for me I actually got to do one of those. My episode really is one of those ones where it actually does give you more of stuff than you’ve ever asked, or sometimes wondered.

But in doing that I realised what an incredibly fragile thing that is. Because if you actually answered all the questions… well, think of one. Was William Hartnell’s Doctor actually Susan’s grandfather? So what happened to their family, and what was going on back there on Gallifrey that they would have fled, and that you would have had a grandfather and a granddaughter? Which is an absolutely fascinating question, which I can guarantee is not answered in my episode. But it’s also one of those weird little engines that possibly if it were answered, things would be less interesting, rather than more.

We saw that to a point even with a seemingly trivial piece of information in Star Trek, when they finally revealed James T Kirk’s middle name, and it suddenly seemed less interesting as a result? It was far more fun to ask the question than it ever was to hear the answer.

Yeah, Tiberius! There’s something so gloriously barking mad about it!

I think it was Richard Curtis that said this, but he talked about writing Doctor Who, and obviously he brought a pedigree of his own. But he talked about the trouble he had in writing the dialogue of the Doctor, particularly the economy of it, which he wasn’t expecting…

I didn’t have any trouble writing dialogue for the Doctor! I had a little bit of trouble in that I did my first draft before Matt was even cast.

You got the audition tapes to look at, didn’t you?

Yeah. But I was writing the first draft before even Matt had auditioned. So I was doing what Moffat did in his first draft of The Eleventh Hour, which a lot of people did during season five, which is that you’re really writing for a hypothetical Doctor. And you kind of had David Tennant’s voice in your head, but you know it’s not going to be that, so it’s getting a bit bland.

What was great for me was, having already written my version, the first draft, the point where my episode got bounced from episode 11 of last season to episode four of this season, I had the luxury that nobody else had of, at that point, I got to watch Matt. I got to rewrite all of Matt’s dialogue, going, I know what he sounds like now. I got to go in and un-Tennant any lines of dialogue that were Tennant-y. Even though they were good Tennant-y things.

And oddly enough, the couple of lines that remained weren’t the best. I thought I should have lost them too. Yes, it was a great line, but it’s not quite Matt. And that for me was the fun of getting to do my draft. It really was for Matt.

But no, I didn’t have any trouble writing the dialogue for the Doctor. I think my favourite moment of pure Doctor, and here I will actually give something away, there is a moment in the episode where everything has gone as wrong as it can possibly go, and the Doctor is talking to himself, and says “I don’t actually know what to do now”. And he says “That’s a new feeling”.

And I thought, what I liked best about that line was that I could have given it to any of the 11 people who have played the Doctor. You can see Christopher Eccleston delivering that. You can see Patrick Troughton. Tom Baker. And they all would have delivered it differently, and it’s a line that’s pure Doctor.

You’ve seen the episode, too.

I have. I got in yesterday afternoon, and the last thing I did before I left the house was download and watch the episode.

And?

I was really happy, really happy.

Was it really nerve wracking for you?

Yeah! It’s awesome.

A show you’ve cared about for so long, and this is your moment with it?

And there’s a point where you’re so much more vulnerable… if I’d written an episode of something I hadn’t grown up with, House or something like that, and scenes had been lost, just the normal give and take creative arguments with producers that I’ve had on making movies and things… you’d come away and go, that’s part of what you’re doing.

With Doctor Who, something’s changing that you didn’t want changed, and it feels like you were just punched in the balls by Santa Claus [with due credit to Paul Cornell for the analogy!] It’s like no, arrgh. And you have to take a deep breath and say, that’s okay. But it’s because you love the thing so much that you can care about it.

The thing with Doctor Who is, you read the way it was done under Russell T Davies’ era, when some were given a framework to a story, with certain ingredients, Steven Moffat seems to be approaching it in a different way. And he’s nobody fool, that much is clear.

So how does your idea, your story and thoughts got channelled into his show, for want of a better way of putting it?

When it was episode eleven of the last season, I talked to him and said, what do you want me to do. And the hardest thing with that is when I did it as episode 11, I knew that we were going into that final two-parter, and that everything was going bad. So it was downbeat, and had a very sad ending. And it was the Doctor and Amy, because Rory didn’t exist.

Except there’s a point where she’s going through his jacket pockets in that version, and found her engagement ring, and couldn’t figure out what it was. That all had to go, and suddenly I’m episode three or four of the new series, and we’re starting the series. So we’re very upbeat, and we needed to change the minor key of the end of the last one.

There was a heartbreaking monologue in my first draft by Amy, towards the end, where you get to see what it’s like to be the companion from the companion’s point of view, and she got to talk about essentially in that version how sad it is, in some ways. One day something will happen to her, she’ll get married, she’ll get eaten by monsters, she’ll die, she’ll get sick of this, but he’ll go on forever. And it was heartbreaking, which now, I didn’t want to lose that, but I had to go, how can I make this upbeat? Because it’s not in the right place now.

And for that matter, she’s no longer missing an engagement ring and a Rory from her life, and slightly out of things, and worried, and missing this thing in her head. It’s now her and Rory, so I had to reshape all of the things that happened in the last half of the adventure, when they’re inside the Tardis and stuff is happening. It’s now no longer one person. It’s now two of them.

And it gives you a different dynamic. So yeah, there was that stuff. But that’s the nature of the game. And the truth is, the reason I got moved from episode eleven… from the last block of the last season to the first block of the new season was, they ran out of money! And my episode is expensive. It’s not that I sit down to write an expensive episode. There were these ways to make it cheap when I started out, like having a cast of essentially three guest stars…

You should have dropped the massive spaceship made out of gold bullion…?

[Laughs] You know, it was so many things. It was many things. There was nothing that I did that was cheap! But bless them, they gave me my story. And they gave it me by saying okay, we’re out of money, we’re going to make The Lodger and put it in that space instead. A show set in a flat in Cardiff, around the corner from where we’re shooting, on location, almost no special effects.

And then The Lodger itself looks to be having ramifications on this new season.

Yeah! So then they're saying okay, the bad news is you’re bounced, the good news is we’re going to make you first while we haven’t run out of money. And, we’re going to give you money by basically taking other episodes out by the bike sheds, beating them up and taking their pocket money!

I know every penny that’s in my episode, and it’s all on the screen. And it’s magic!

Neil Gaiman, thank you very much!

The Doctor's Wife screens this coming Saturday on BBC One

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