Warning: contains some mild spoilers for Doctor Who series 8.
“No-one actually hides behind their sofas do they?” says Doctor Who Executive Producer Brian Minchin as we round a corner of the BBC’s Roath Lock Studios in Cardiff. “Maybe people with big front rooms…”.
It’s early June and we’re talking to Brian Minchin as filming continues on episode nine of the new series. Is he at all worried that Capaldi’s Doctor – described to anyone who’ll listen as a dangerous, unpredictable man – might frighten Doctor Who’s youngest fans? “But people like what you get out of Doctor Who,” Minchin answers, “they like that the danger’s real.”
“We did want a Doctor who was more unpredictable and had a bit of danger to him. We’ve had lots of brilliant, brilliant Doctors who you always felt very safe and trusted with, but I think with Peter’s Doctor, you’re never quite sure which way he’s going to turn.”
Minchin talks about Peter Capaldi as the Doctor with discernible glee, counting off the characteristics the role demands on his fingers. “It’s really hard, because you’ve got to be really funny, an action hero, have a mystery and an edge to you… Peter’s immensely funny, he loves the show and he’s kind of ageless. He’s got such energy to him.”
Not many actors can do all that, then? “I think only Peter Capaldi can do that,” says Minchin before laughing “I don’t want to say ‘all actors are rubbish compared to Peter’, don’t print that!”. We wouldn’t dream of it, Brian.
Minchin’s excitement is understandable. Doctor Who and its spin-offs have formed the backbone of his career since he produced a clutch of TV Who documentaries in 2010 before moving on to The Sarah Jane Adventures, then Torchwood, then Russell T. Davies and Phil Ford’s Wizards Vs. Aliens, before following Caroline Skinner into the big chair in 2013. Along the way, Minchin gained a unique perspective for a non-showrunning Doctor Who exec. producer by script-editing eight episodes of the show between 2007 and 2010, and racking up writer’s credits on an Eleventh Doctor novel (The Forgotten Army), a Torchwood comic strip (The Return Of The Vostok) and a Torchwood audio drama (The Sin Eaters). It’s fair to say that the man knows and loves Doctor Who.
And he loves Peter Capaldi as the Doctor. Asked how long the casting shortlist was before Capaldi was selected, Minchin’s answer is endearingly love-struck. “We only had eyes for Peter” he tells us, “It was always Peter for us. It was always Peter. Once we realised the type of Doctor we wanted and where we wanted to go with it, it was always him. We only met Peter. I’m not sure he knew that, but he’s the only one we met.”
How excited were they when Capaldi agreed to the part? “We were completely thrilled because he was exactly the type of person we wanted.” The feeling, it appears, is mutual as Minchin goes on to explain. “His agent said this lovely thing, she said that she rang him up and said “Hello Doctor” and said that he reacted like a drama student being given their first ever job! Peter Capaldi has confected the most successful letter writing campaign in history” he adds later with a smile. “He wrote in asking if he could be the Doctor forty years ago… and it worked!”
How would Minchin say Capaldi’s Doctor differs to Matt Smith’s? “It is entirely different from Matt. It feels entirely new. That’s the joy of Doctor Who. His character’s starting again. At first, he’s a Doctor who doesn’t know the format of the show. He’s going to make his decisions on what he thinks is right and that’s very exciting. He’s a Doctor who always speaks his mind and he doesn’t mind about upsetting people, which, again, is really funny.”
There have been flashes of the previous Doctors in Capaldi’s publicity images since his casting was announced, we say. Was that Hartnell-inspired hands-on-lapels pose at the live BBC announcement Capaldi’s idea? Ed Russell, Senior Brand Executive for Doctor Who nods. “Peter’s knowing, he knows everything, all the conventions.”
In that case, has Capaldi requested anything to be worked in in homage to the previous Doctors? Props or costumes, for instance? “I think there are lots of details Peter will throw in with his photo shoots and stuff, but…” Minchin tails off, prompting Ed Russell to finish, “He’s his own Doctor, isn’t he?”. “There is an episode,” says Minchin, “where there’s a yo-yo used and Peter was very keen that looked like the yo-yo that Tom Baker had, that’s just kind of a detail. He isn’t learning karate though!”
I should mention that this conversation is taking place in the most uncanny and thrilling of locations: inside the TARDIS. A group of us is huddled around the familiar console (which has undergone one or two unfamiliar changes for the episode in question) while others roam up the new staircase and around the brand new gallery level, which houses filled bookshelves, chalkboards covered in scientific diagrams and equations, and all the scholarly clutter one might accumulate over the course of a century or so of life as the Doctor.
The changes, new gallery level aside, aren’t radical. As Minchin says, “certain design features have always stayed the same – we’ve always had the roundels somewhere, we’ve always had the console, it’s always had natural curves to it. So the colour’s changed, that [pointing to a screen on the console] is only there for a scene, so it’s not normally there, but we’ve added him the bookcases and the blackboards and this new staircase.”
How do the changes to the TARDIS reflect the new Doctor? “We say it as, when you first move into a house, you keep it all nice and clean and pristine and then after a while you put stuff which is useful to you” answers Minchin. The clutter is part of the TARDIS’ charm, Minchin tells us, “It’s not like Star Trek. It’s not all slick. It feels like something you could make yourself. It’s a little bit home-made.”
The bookshelves and chalkboards give the new-look TARDIS something of a classroom-vibe, someone remarks. Now that Clara’s teaching at Coal Hill School, will the series be about two teachers, Minchin is asked? “He’s not a teacher really, but we are going back to Coal Hill where Clara is a teacher. Unlike other companions, she’s got a great life on Earth being a teacher, she’s got a boyfriend – Danny (Samuel Anderson) – and she’s trying to keep that life going as well as being a traveller.”
Clara’s double life is going to cause her some problems in series eight, Minchin tells us. “She’s not leaving one life behind, she’s trying to keep them both going at once, which is really funny because the best thing to do with a control freak character like Clara is to overload her so she can’t possibly keep up. We’ve got her coming back to dates, but with a tan she didn’t have when she left, or her hair’s grown two inches, so she keeps being dropped back in. The relationship between the Doctor and Clara is really fantastic, it’s very different to what we’ve seen before.”
How would Minchin characterise that relationship? “It’s kind of unconventional. We’re very much telling the story in the first episode of Clara not being sure about this new man because she’s spent all this time travelling with lovely young Matt Smith with floppy hair who transformed in front of her into Peter Capaldi, so there’s a lot to take in.”
What can he tell us about the character of Clara’s boyfriend, Danny Pink? “He’s in most of the series. He’s not a companion, he’s another teacher in Coal Hill school and throughout the series we’ll be telling the story of Clara’s life on Earth with Danny and her life in space with the Doctor. She keeps them a secret from each other, but there’s a big episode in the middle where it all comes together and Danny finds out about the Doctor and the Doctor finds out about Danny.”
When we get a chance to collar Minchin alone, we ask him about his Doctor Who script-editing days. When you receive a script from, say, Richard Curtis (Minchin worked on Vincent And The Doctor), does it feel sacrosanct? Do you – even if you don’t want to – treat it differently to other scripts?
“When you get a script from Richard, you treat it differently because it’s so good, it works. I’d like to think you treat everyone and every script the same, because every script should be as important and every script should mean as much to everyone else, whether it’s got a big name attached or someone who will become famous later. For me, one of the most exciting things about the show, the type of writers who come in and work on it. We’ve got people like Frank Cottrell Boyce writing this series, who’s amazing. His mind and the way it works is astonishing. You come away from every conversation with him feeling cleverer. There’s people like Peter Harness writing an episode, which is amazing. I’ve worked with Neil Gaiman. Love Neil. Everyone’s got a unique take on Doctor Who.”
“Shall we go and see a bit of the filming?” Minchin suggests. “Let’s go this way. It’s more dangerous this way.” Leading us down the creaky TARDIS steps, we walk across the tracks of an unlit railway tunnel, which is to provide the background for the stunt being prepared in front of an enormous green screen next door. “We always have endless sets going up and down”, Minchin explains, “originally, this was a Medieval hall we used for an episode where the Doctor meets Robin Hood, and now it’s been re-versioned as the railway tunnel.”
Inside the studio a green screen stunt is being rehearsed, featuring Jenna Coleman (with the Doctor’s Sonic Screwdriver), Christopher Fairbank, and two railway workers, one strapped into a harness. “This is for episode nine,” Minchin explains, “The TARDIS gets shrunk and the Doctor gets trapped inside it so Clara kind of becomes the Doctor for an episode and he’s able to give her instructions from inside the TARDIS.”
We’re introduced to producer Nikki Wilson, who talks us through the stunt, which is being directed by Douglas Mackinnon. Just as the team starts to usher the press tour out of the studio so we can sit down and chat with Capaldi himself, Minchin objects, his fandom winning over the day’s timetable. “Can we just stay here to watch the stunt? I really want to see it. We can at least watch the rehearsal. I want to see it.” We’re shushed ready for rolling, and he whispers, laughing “It’s not all about Peter, honestly!”.
The first episode of Doctor Who series eight, Deep Breath, airs on BBC One on Saturday the 23rd of August.
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