This Saturday evening, Mark Gatiss will take us on a trip to Mars. 1881 Mars, to be precise, where the Doctor and Bill find themselves mystified by the presence of a group of Victorian colonists. Gatiss’ ninth Doctor Who episode is space historical The Empress Of Mars, which features the return of some familiar foes.
A few weeks ago, we chatted to Gatiss about the episode, whether it will be his last for Doctor Who, series ten’s satirical side, and his take on the Steven Moffat era…
As a writer, you’re big on research, particularly for your Who historicals – you read up a lot on WWII for Victory Of The Daleks, for instance. So tell me, how does one go about researching an episode set on Mars?
I went to Mars!
Wouldn’t expect anything less!
It’s little-trumpeted, but I was the first man on Mars and I spent a lot of time there! [Laughs]
Well, essentially the research part was Victoria’s Empire so I read a lot of books about the Zulu wars and a brilliant book called Running The Show by Stephanie Williams, which is about how the Empire was managed. It’s a fabulous book, basically the story of all the colonies, and it’s where I got the name ‘Captain Catchlove’—a brilliant, brilliant Victorian name. That was very instructive. Not a lot of it actually gets into the final script but it’s really more about the kind of impression it leaves.
How did the episode develop from your initial idea?
Originally, it was going to be a bit more… I suppose a bit more like Carry On Up The Khyber, it was going to be about an actual colony with a governor and the Doctor turns up and says ‘there can’t be Victorians here!’ but it wasn’t right. Then I had an epiphany and realised that it was Zulu with Ice Warriors. That’s essentially what it is. It’s that lovely Doctor Who-y juxtaposition of Victorian soldiers on an alien planet plus Ice Warriors, that’ll do me.
We’ve yet to see The Empress Of Mars but we know it’s going to air after a big linked three-parter. Would you describe it as having a tonal departure from the previous three?
I think so. Let me think. I’ve read Extremis and Lie Of The Land. I’ve not read Pyramid At The End Of The World so I don’t know what happens. I think it’s probably a bit more of a romp after that, but I know little about the others. I suppose it’s quite close to the finale so it’s probably a bit of a more straightforward adventure before it all kicks off again.
There’s obviously a colonial political message there as well, with the idea that humans are alien invaders this time around?
Yes, it’s a gentle message, it’s not all about that. There’s a whole story to tell, which this isn’t, which is the notion of an alien planet—I think there’s a cartoon about it, Pixar or something—which is about a planet which is invaded by Earth people and they are the aggressors. That’s a really interesting thing to explore, but essentially this is really about Bill as the new companion and not assuming that the Doctor will necessarily take the side of the Earth people in any given conflict.
You’re a self-described “politics junkie” – you’ve certainly played a good few politicians over the years too. Series ten has been making some terrific political critiques, particularly in Thin Ice and Oxygen – what’s your take on that?
[Laughs] I think that’s Steven [Moffat] saying goodbye!
I think it’s thrilling. It’s not party political, that’s the thing, it’s just about basic humanity isn’t it? Satire in Doctor Who is a really exciting thing but it shouldn’t be absolutely on the nose, it shouldn’t be front and foremost the notion of it. I think you can just do little subtle things in there and have some fun.
The notion of privatising air is exactly what science-fiction should be about, it’s just about conceivable. It’s the way that Black Mirror is rapidly becoming true. You set something forty-eight hours in the future and actually by the time you transmit it, it’s happened. I think it’s really exciting, why not?
It’s always been a function of the series hasn’t it, with the Nazi Daleks and The Happiness Patrol and so on…
And The Sun Makers, which is a satire on the tax system. You never forget that it’s a science-fiction story but there are lots of funny in-jokes in there.
Satire in Doctor Who is a rather lovely thing, it’s something that science-fiction as a vehicle has always done rather brilliantly because it means it’s not a sort of polemic, it’s not a dry dissertation on why the extremities of capitalism are not very nice, you can just enjoy yourself whilst making a point.
And an accessible point too. In the last few weeks I’ve heard parents saying that Doctor Who has helped them to have conversations with their kids about these sorts of ideas.
Yes, and that’s something that Doctor Who has done from the beginning. There’s a very famous thing from when they did Marco Polo, the fourth story back in 1964, there’s a little line where they’re being menaced by some assassins and Barbara, the history teacher, says it comes from the word ‘hashashin’ because they used to get doped off their eyeballs before they killed people which is the origin of the word ‘assassin’. The production office got a letter from a teacher saying ‘I’ve been trying to get history through my class’s skulls for years and with one line, you’ve done more than I’ve done in twenty years!’ [Laughs] I think that’s rather lovely. Again, it’s not about being dry, it’s about having fun.
In my own timeline, I remember my very first story [The Unquiet Dead] I got lots of emails. I got an email from Harry Enfield, I remember that, saying ‘my kids have spent the last three hours Googling Charles Dickens, they’re really interested in him now’ and that’s lovely, isn’t it? That’s the way it should be.
You mention privatising air in Oxygen, with the idea of sleep being taken away by corporations to make a more ‘efficient’ workforce in your previous episode Sleep No More, there seems to be a connection between those two stories?
It’s going to happen, I warn you now! We’re about five minutes away from it!
That was a deliberate thing. I thought that was an interesting and a very Doctor Who-y idea, what if, in the constant drive to improve efficiency, sleep is a casualty? I read a lot of interesting articles at the time I was writing that about how much being constantly ‘on’ as we all are now is sort of injurious to our mental health. There was a time when you would miss a phone call, someone would call and you were out, but it’s inconceivable now. We are all too alert all the time, that’s where we are now so maybe seven thousand years in the future, there’ll be monsters created out of our sleep goo! [laughs] That, in any case, was my thinking.
From the outside, that story also seemed to have a—you’ve had a very successful few years, but what must also have been a very exhausting few years—that episode seemed to have a personal element?
Oh I don’t sleep! I can’t sleep [laughs]. I get up very early. I’ve always been an early riser but increasingly now… I think it is a problem for all of us, the notion of being switched on all the time.
In these last successful years, having been able to make all those things—Sherlock, Doctor Who, An Adventure In Space And Time, which you’ve described as your dream project—I always wonder what happens after someone has achieved their dream project?
There are a lot of things I want to do. I poured everything I love about the show into [An Adventure In Space And Time], definitely. It’s not my era, the natural thing would to have done a drama about the Pertwee era, but what it represents is so deep in me and close to my heart. It’s the creation myth, that’s what it is. It was an irresistible thing and I always thought it would make a beautiful drama. I’m very, very proud of it. I think it shines out of it, there’s so much love across the board within it, that’s the lovely thing.
But as a creative person, you’re not left spinning after having ticked a long-term goal off?
Too much to do! Sleep is for tortoises!
Your success on Sherlock feels as though any projects you want to do from now on should be a shoo-in in terms of getting the green light, but I gather that’s not always so?
You have no idea! That’s totally true. In the last eighteen months had two very major setbacks, so the idea that you can just go in and ask them to wave a chequebook at you is not true I’m afraid. That’s probably a good thing, because otherwise you get people indulging themselves a little too much. But it would be nice if they just said ‘okay, thanks very much, here’s an eighteen part series!’
Earlier in the year you mentioned you were producing a project and aiming to get some brand new TV writers into it? That isn’t one of the setbacks is it?
No, that’s Queers, the show I’m just editing now, which is a series of eight monologues for BBC Four for the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality—male homosexuality in this country—it’s full of qualifications. Five of the writers are new to television so it’s a very rare opportunity these days to try to get people that kind of slot because they don’t come up very often these days.
You’ve cited Alan Bennett as a real influence on that – what does a writer like him mean to you?
He’s a huge influence from childhood onwards, as a Northern writer and a writer whose voice is so distinctive. I remember stumbling across one of his plays when I was a child and I remember thinking ‘how does he know all this? This is my life?’ there’s just an incredible truth to it and also just incredibly funny and obviously a huge influence on my monologues series because he wrote the book on it, as it were, by creating Talking Heads. He’s a giant to me.
Obviously it may well not be, but if The Empress Of Mars were the last time you wrote an episode of Doctor Who, would you say you’ve achieved everything you wanted to in writing for the show or are there residual writerly ambitions there?
There are always things. All those ideas in my school exercise books! I always wanted to do an Auton story set in the thirties because that was the first great plastic era. Bakelite! I always thought Bakelite Autons would be rather good. That was many, many years ago, I thought of it when I was about six [laughs].
There’s loads I’d still love to do, yes. Equally, it’s very much the end of an era and I’m very excited about what Chris [Chibnall, new showrunner] is going to do. I also rather like the idea of not knowing anything.
I’ve no idea if it’s my last one, but if it were I’d be very happy to have worked on the show which I’ve loved for so long and to have written for four Doctors over twelve years. It’s been amazing. It’s still a privilege and still a pinch-me kind of thing. It’s remarkable. I never thought it would come back, I tried to keep a torch alight but I really didn’t think so. It’s still [laughs] amazing to me that it’s come back the way it has and been so wonderfully successful, so if this is the end then I’ll be perfectly content.
Talking about residual ambitions, from an acting perspective as Mycroft in Sherlock, are there situations in which you’d still like to see him? Or now he’s had the Steed umbrella sword, perhaps there are no more mountains to climb for him?
Well there’s a bowler hat! I think I should do a Mycroft story with Diana Rigg, that would see him off! [Laughs]
We’ve no idea, we don’t have any idea. We might do some more, we might not, it’s in the lap of the gods really. We don’t know.
You mention Steven Moffat saying goodbye this series. Were there any specific instructions or game plan for the writers this year? Did he set out any particular goals?
No, it’s a lot to do with the idea of the soft reboot. Rose is the template, the idea of seeing it through the eyes of someone perfectly ordinary then being able to ask all those interesting questions for the first time.
As I’ve said to several press, Nick Burns from Thin Ice, his boys are just about the right age to start watching it and he was asking me before the season started if this was the right point to hop on and I said it’s the perfect time. My earliest memory almost at all, certainly of Doctor Who, was watching Spearhead From Space and I was instantly hooked, then at some stage in the next few weeks, my dad said ‘You know there were other Doctors?’ and you go ‘oooh!’ [laughs]. That story just keeps on happening. I love the idea of a child just watching from The Pilot onwards and discovering this legacy.
You’ve written for a number of companions and Doctors now, what would you say is different about writing for Bill?
Clara obviously turned out to have all sorts of history and different impact on the Doctor’s life, but if the central idea is much more that she’s just a student who stumbles into the TARDIS, you’re at liberty to ask the interesting questions. I’m afraid the line about where the toilet is in the TARDIS was my idea, because I said to Steven, why hasn’t anyone ever asked it? If you’re trying to actually say how a real person would react, that’s probably the first thing you’d ask, isn’t it? Where’s the kettle, where’s the toilet?
I think it’s refreshing and it also means you’re not suddenly in some sort of sci-fi world where people are saying they’re normal but they’re not normal. They have lives, they have girlfriends and boyfriends and spots and problems, but then this magical thing happens. That, to me, is the essence of the show, the Narnia moment, the first step through the door which this year I thought was done so brilliantly, that pullback in the TARDIS and the Doctor literally putting his coat on to look his best and turning the lights on like ta-da! [Laughs] It never fails to thrill because every time it’s still a joy.
With Nardole, that’s a different, more sci-fi perspective isn’t it? You wrote for the trio in your episode didn’t you, it’s not just Bill and the Doctor?
Yes, well Steven asked me quite late in the day, do you think you could put Matt into it? It wasn’t the plan but he’s sort of appearing in every episode! So he kind of bookends The Empress Of Mars.
What would you say Matt Lucas has bought to the show?
Matt’s just a genius I think. His sense of fun and comedy and just the geniality of his presence is what’s lovely. You get this interesting thing because Bill is brand new and then you have this slightly world weary figure who’s sort of telling the Doctor off, as we’ll find out about, because he’s made this vow to stay and guard the vault, so again it’s a nice new, different dynamic. It’s not quite the boy-girl companion because they don’t go off on adventures together.
Anyone gets my vote who has been in the show and says ‘Please can I come back? I’ve had a wonderful time!’ Matt lives in America so it’s a big effort for him to come over.
You had Wayne Yip direct your episode, along with Toby Whithouse’s this year. He did some great work on a couple of episodes of Class, did you see those?
I did yes, I watched them in preparation. Wayne was fabulous, full of brilliant ideas. Wayne did a terrific job, I’m very pleased. It was a big challenge this year to build the underground caverns in the studio at Roath Lock, we were limited geographically, there was a lot to get in, but again, Michael Pickwoad’s design is fantastic. There was a little location filming in some actual red caves, which is the essence of Doctor Who!
Seeing as we’re coming to an endpoint on Steven’s tenure on the show, there can’t be anyone on the planet—maybe only Sue Vertue—who knows his writing better than you. How would you characterise his specific talents as a writer, speaking as his colleague and collaborator?
Well, I would say this, obviously, but I honestly think Steven is one of the greats, not just in Doctor Who, but in terms of British talent. He has an amazing brain and a sort of magic touch. Having seen him work on the show up close for so many years, I’ve never seen anyone work harder. He pours absolutely every drop of his love of the show into it. Many times he’ll send me half a script saying ‘I’m stuck, what do you think?’ and I read it and just go [laughs] ‘well, I think it’s amazing! It’s amazing already!’
Writing can be very lonely—not to get the violin out—but it can be a very lonely activity and the simple act of sharing the idea with a friend or colleague can often open up locked doors which you never expected. You can say ‘I can’t think of an ending for this’ and something will unlock.
Steven texted me yesterday—he’s obviously writing Peter’s exit now—and he said “It’s hard right to the very end”. I think that’s how I always think of Steven – working hard right to the very end.
Having shared the exec producer role on Sherlock with him, have you ever envied him that on Doctor Who?
It is just such hard work. Honestly, I think it’s not a job anyone can take on lightly and I’m sure Chris Chibnall has not taken it on lightly! It’s a hugely difficult job, a bit like being the England manager. There’s so much expectation, there are so many people lined up wanting you to fail, there are so many people who think they can do it better than you can, so it’s just a mass of horror! [Laughs] I don’t think people really appreciate how difficult it is.
But in the middle of it there’s that wonderful thing that for a few years, you’re in charge of the destiny of the Doctor.
Mark Gatiss, thank you very much!
The Empress Of Mars airs on BBC One on Saturday the 10th of June at 19:15.