Doctor Who: James Strong talks ‘Planet Of The Dead’

The director of 'Planet Of The Dead' chats exclusively with us about this Saturday's much-anticipated return of Doctor Who...

James Strong

We’re all pretty stoked, as usual, for the welcome return of Doctor Who this year, but the shorter season is really throwing the spotlight on the individual episodes, kicking off with this Saturday’s season opener, ‘Planet Of The Dead’ – our last Doctor Who fix until Christmas!

We’ve been writing a lot about this episode – where David Tennant’s Doctor teams up with Michelle Ryan to confront two new alien species on a dangerous desert planet – and rumours about it have been rife. A couple of weeks ago, we were lucky enough to chat with James Strong, the director of Planet Of The Dead, and he was kind enough to set us straight about one or two matters…

Just to clear up one matter that made the news – there’s still a London bus in ‘Planet Of The Dead’, isn’t there?

There’s very much a bus! It’s alive and kicking in our episode. ‘Bad news’ stories obviously make much better coverage than good news stories. The truth of the matter is that there was damage done to the bus, which was a major prop in the episode, on its journey to Dubai. The original intention was actually to damage the bus, but when  it was looked into, it was too difficult. Logistically we were going to need a bus in Dubai and a bus in Wales, to film. To damage one bus absolutely identically to another one is a rather complicated thing to do. So we decided that while it would have been nice to have a completely damaged bus both ends, we decided that we couldn’t do that. The damage that was done to it was a lot less than what was reported, and it only took about ten minutes of re-jigging the script to sort it out.

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I guess we all made an awful lot out of it, then!

I love it! It was fantastic reading all this stuff the next day: visions of Russell [T. Davies] jumping up and down and utter chaos [laughs]! As I say, it was fixed in about ten minutes.

Is post-production still going on with ‘Planet Of The Dead’ or is it pretty much ready?

Oh blimey – no no no! [laughs] Going on and going on…and it will be going on right up until transmission. These are the tightest deadlines we’ve ever had, so it’s requiring an enormous effort from everybody, really, since we finished shooting, to really push it through. Obviously it has to be to the same standards as normal, and more. It’s a bigger episode than we’ve ever done before, and yet the deadlines are tighter than we’ve ever had before. But I’m sure we’ll get there.

How has shooting in high-definition changed the pipeline of getting an episode out?

Well, I think part of the consideration in moving to HD was the number of CGI shots in Doctor Who. The cost of moving to HD was slightly prohibitive. But as things have progressed and more and more stuff is on HD, in the end it got to be that we were the only show not on HD. The equipment and the software that was being used was all HD, and we weren’t. In the end [the fact that HD was prevalent] made it easier for us to work with it, from the point of view of effects and stuff.

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But it’s fair to say that the effects for Doctor Who are going to be a little bit more expensive now, because of the resolutions involved?

Yes, but I think it’s not quite as simple as that, because the machines they’ve got will do them quicker. So there’s a kind of balance to be had. The quality that we’re shooting at means that we can get away with more, and in that sense there’s less work to be done on certain shots. Everything’s gone HD, so ultimately Doctor Who had to move over at some point, but I can’t say that it’s impacted on the budget that we’ve had at all. In fact we’ve got more CGI than we’ve ever had before, though I know we’ve not got any more money [laughs]. It’s a better quality picture, so therefore a better resolution for the artists to work at as well.

Has the TARDIS been re-modelled extensively in its new high-definition version?

The TARDIS does feature in this episode, but not to the extent that it needed to be remodelled for us. I’m not really sure what they’re doing for future episodes, but in mine not really much takes place in the TARDIS, so it wasn’t really an issue.

Do you think you would have got a Dubai location shoot if Doctor Who wasn’t having a truncated season this year?

Well, they went to Pompeii last year. I think if the script had been a normal episode rather than a special – not that there’s ever a normal episode…this story demanded a proper desert, so I don’t think it could ever have been achieved otherwise. It’s a scary thing to think how we would have done it on Camber Sands or a beach in West Wales.

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On set, was there a sense of valediction beginning for David Tennant’s Doctor, or is that still very much in the future?

We don’t really deal in this episode in anything that’s to come, or that might happen to the Doctor regarding David’s exit from the character. What’s lovely about it for me is that it’s the last of the standalone, pure Doctor Who adventures. After this episode I think it’s going to get darker and into the story that will see the regeneration to the next Doctor. This one doesn’t deal with anything at all that’s come before or after.

When you were shooting ‘Planet Of The Dead’, were you aware that it would be pretty much the only Doctor Who of 2009? Everything else is coming around the turn of the year…

That was great, to know that everyone’s going to be really really excited to see it! You do feel that you have to make it a barnstormer, which it is. And it really is a ‘special’ – there’s a lot to it, and it’s bigger and better and more spectacular than anything we’ve ever done before.

You’ve had two strong Doctor Who writers to deal with on Planet Of The Dead, and one’s the guvnor – is it ever an awkward matter to say that something might need changing in a Russell T. Davies script?

The truth of the matter is that Russell Davies is a genius. Sometimes you’ll read a script and you’ll go ‘Hmmm, is that quite working? I’ve got a question here…’. And he’ll forensically refer you to scene direction in scene fourteen, and then you go ‘Ah, okay – actually that’s right’. It’s so incredibly watertight, his methodology and his thought-process. Bizarrely, there rarely are any of the usual inconsistencies or problems with plot-holes and script-stuff. Beyond that, if something with an actor or a prop or something doesn’t work, there’s a conversation, and Russell is the most open to changing it. So it’s a very benevolent dictatorship [laughs]. You’re encouraged to express the story, really, in its absolute pure sense.

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That’s the best thing about a Russell T. Davies script – I am free to express it and make it truly spectacular and visually incredible, without worrying that the bloody thing makes sense, or that the line’s crap, or that that bit of dialogue’s clunky, like I do on…I won’t mention, but other stuff you do.

You’re no stranger to directing Doctor Who, but with so many people having a stake in it and so many outside opinions, does that make it hard to put your own stamp on the work?

It’s funny because, in a way – no. They’re all enablers. The team is such a family that you never feel that anybody’s there to put their vision of it ahead of yours. I do feel very well-respected and very well-supported. And Russell writes such strong scripts, with such a clear idea of what’s there – still, there’s a big gap between that and the interpretation and making it work.

Did Matt Smith keep up tradition and pay a visit to the set at any point?

He didn’t visit my set, but I think he’d only just been announced when we were filming, and he probably knew that the press’d be all over it. But I don’t know if he’s visited Graham’s or  Euros’s since*.  

Planet Of The Dead is the first co-written episode since Doctor Who returned in 2005 – could I ask why this collaboration between Davies and Gareth Roberts came about?

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I don’t really know. I’d be guessing, to be honest, purely speculating. I think Russell likes working with other people, and as show-runner on previous episodes has, to a greater or lesser extent, always been involved in polishing and working on the writers’ scripts, so maybe this was a chance to just formalise that. Russell’s very busy, and also I think it meant that the schedule – especially our one – could be half-working on something else as well if he was collaborating [on ‘Planet Of The Dead’]. I think it’s great to have other writers working with the guvnor, but you also have the hand of the guvnor working on them very strongly as well.

But no-one’s ever really told me why. It seemed to work very well.

I was reading that David Tennant may have had some trouble getting back into the part after his long break for Hamlet – was that evident on set?

I would say absolutely not [laughs]. At the read-through in January, it was literally like he’d never been away. Quite incredible when you consider what is involved in doing a performance like Hamlet for six months, or whatever. I think the Doctor is so ingrained in David, it’s a part of him. He was back in an instant [laughs]! I haven’t seen his Hamlet, but I didn’t see a trace of it in his Doctor.

We know you’ll not want to spoil the episode, but can we expect any old friends to turn up in Planet Of The Dead? There’s a lot of speculation about Michelle Ryan’s character….?

As far as I know, these are all new characters. But Russell sometimes doesn’t tell us everything. Most of the people we meet are new people, I’d say. You never know – there might be the odd face from the past that pops up just to throw a little spanner into it, but errr..[laughs]…wait and see, really.

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How was it working with Lee Evans?

Lee’s brilliant. He’s obviously famous for being a brilliant comedian and  a great comic performer, but I think what you actually forget is that he’s actually a very fine character actor as well. The character he plays – Dr. Malcolm Taylor, a sort of scientific advisor for UNIT – is very much a hero and rounded character. But working with [Evans himself] is a joy. He’s a collaborator and he’s very funny on and off set. It was great to have a Doctor Who set with genuine laughter in it. It’s got that element to the episode alongside the high excitement and drama and adrenaline. It’s a very different episode, and very exciting.

Every [Doctor Who episode] is so different that you never feel like you’re doing the same thing twice.  To work on Doctor Who at this point in time is so exciting, that you’d always go back and want to do it, really. It’s the best gig in the world – why would you not want to do it? And to be part of the specials is also a real honour. I couldn’t have missed out on doing one of Russell’s and David’s last ones – and Julie’s [Gardner] too. And Phil’s [Collinson] too. He’s not really been involved in the specials, but his presence is still with us. What he put in place has kept the show going since his departure, so he’s very much part of it. So we’re all kind of coming to the end, and it’s a fitting tribute.

Are you in talks for any further Who episodes for the next season?

I can’t really say. It’s all a bit premature yet. I think Peers [Wenger] and Steven [Moffat] are very much getting their scripts together and their team together. To be honest, I don’t really know what they’ve got planned. I’ve got a few things in the pipeline as well, so we’ll wait and see. But never say never [laughs]!

James Strong, thank you very much!

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*Graeme Harper, director of S5E2 at Christmas, and Euros Lynn, closing out the Tennant era with a two-parter around the new year.

‘Planet Of The Dead’ airs this Saturday (April 11th).

Win a remote-controlled Davros and other Doctor Who goodies in today’s great competition at Den Of Geek, in association with Forbidden Planet.