Mark Gatiss had just finished the first draft of his new Sherlock episode, when he settled down with a bunch of assembled interrogators – ourselves included – to talk about his new Doctor Who episode, Sleep No More. Here are the highlights of that chat…
On how it was originally a two-parter:
I started it [that way], that was my plan. I plotted it, the whole thing. But the more I thought I about it, when I came up with the found footage idea, I thought it’s not going to sustain over two. It just won’t.
Steve[n Moffat] agreed, and it crunched down. The great thing about a two parter is that you get a cliffhanger and you can spread things, in quite an old fashioned way. What I did do was an early draft where it was basically just the Doctor and Clara. It was a bit like The Ark In Space. It was just them exploring this empty space station, because you have time to do it. Whereas traditionally you have to wrap up.
But weirdly, once I made the decision to just be a single [episode], it really helped. It needed a kind of immediacy really. It’s an interesting thing. The show’s been back on for ten years now, and we’ve become much more used to that. It was initially quite hard to unpick that mindset. But I think in the end it really benefits the episode.
As I said, found footage is familiar in films now, but it’s never done in TV. One of the things I love about doing Doctor Who is the chance to do something unusual, and to keep pushing the format after 50-odd years. It’s great that it can still do that. And it really suits it.
There are lovely narrative leaps you can make because it doesn’t have to be sequential. There’s a bit where Reece was talking to the camera, and he just said “we had our own troubles”, and it just went straight into that the spaceship is crashing over Neptune. That would normally be a series of things, but you could just cut in. I found that really exciting.
On how a lot of modern Doctor Who tends to start at what would have been episode two of the old series:
Oh, completely. The thing is in terms of new grammar, that we all learn very early on, is that the pre-titles is essentially episode one. In some way, particularly with Cold War, that is absolutely a haiku version of an old episode one. You have this set up, a submarine, here they are, they’ve found something in the ice, and then the ice smashes open and an ice warrior comes out. Cliffhanger! But it’s actually done in a minute, and that’s very exciting, and what we’ve become used to, I suppose.
On the meticulous writing involved in a found footage story, and whether it had an impact on the words on the page:
Oh, very much. You actually have to be prescriptive. I had a long Skype conversation with Justin, the director, and I was saying for goodness sake, don’t ignore your own instinct here. We want to get as many POVs as possible, as much coverage, as much of an unusual feel. We want to keep reminding people it’s not like an ordinary episode. But at the same time, I’ve written that this has to be Sara’s POV, Rasmussen’s POV or whatever, it’s very important, because that’s part of the storytelling, and what we’re trying to do.
On whether he was tempted to direct it himself, given how prescriptive his script was:
Yes [laughs]. I have directed. I did Ghost Stories a couple of years ago, and I’d love to do some more. But to be honest, it was quite enough to do this episode. And I suppose it’s an appealing idea, but it’s pretty terrifying. I’d call my episode ‘Don’t Fuck It Up’ [laughs].
But I think Justin’s done a brilliant job. I’m really pleased with it, I think it’s come out really well. But there are also things, almost always… What I genuinely did with this one was I was going to write this as if it was a horror movie, and then I’ll pull it back. Then I really didn’t. It’s wonderfully scary. I’m thrilled with how scary it is. But I suppose in the end, it’s pitch black, and you also have to remember that fundamentally a Saturday night show, and it’s not going out at midnight. Not far off! But actually, it would be nice sometimes to think you don’t have to have those constraints, you could just go for it.
There’s a section in there, where they hide in the cold store in the kitchens. I’ve been trying to do that for years. I had the idea years ago – what a great place to have a set piece scary thing. Because all you see is the breath, and it’s logistically not impossible. And we finally did it.
They were very cold! But I suppose in my head it was going to be absolutely pitch black, and you’d see torches, and their breath. But as I say I think it’s come out really well. And I love the monsters!
On what Sleep No More is about:
It’s a satire on our working lives. In the future, we’ll have no time at all. We’ll have to work all the time. Really what humanity is doing is bartering away the most blessed thing there is: sleeping. Shakespeare and all the poets were right. There’s more to it than we know. It’s not just about having 40 winks, it’s empirically right for us to do, otherwise the monsters will get us!
On would he like to write a Tom Baker biopic (which we suggested in jest, but, y’know…):
He won’t allow me!
I directed a lost Hitchcock for radio, and when we were editing it, I just heard this booming voice, and there he was.
I went to see him, and he said “Mark, where did you get your shoe”. “Just the one?”, I said. He said “I have one of those. One”. And then he said: “Well, they don’t think the other leg will last to the summer!”
He never lets you down!
And then we asked…
You talked last year and said that the story for Sleep No More had been an idea that was in your head for some time. Where are you in terms of future Doctor Who stories?
Steven’s asked me if I’d write a sequel to this one, which I find in a ‘yeti’ way very exciting. I’ll see if I can do that. It’s always the same way, really. You have a store of ideas that are nuggets, or others that might be slightly more thought out. And then it’s what might fit the season. I’ve actually talked about [Sleep No More] for quite a long time. I’ve got a few ideas!
I’d love to do a story about fracking. When I first heard about it I thought of Inferno. To me that sounds a very Doctor Who-y idea, that. It’s obviously a bad idea. Obviously. To me it’s got that whole Jaws scenario, of lots of people saying it’s going to be fine. But as well as shale gas, maybe there’s something else lurking down there. It’s called ‘Frack Off And Die’ [Laughs]
That’s all it is. That’s an idea, it’s not fully fledged.
Do you think you’ll do a sequel to Sleep No More?
There’s a bit of a history of groupings. There’s two Mara stories in Peter Davison’s time. Two yeti stories. It would be nice to. I’d love to. I think the idea is good and the monsters are great so it would be quite nice. I suppose you’d have to do a Web Of Fear-type thing where you ask where else could they go?
But the Doctor loses in this episode. And that’s an unusual place to be. And so it also needs some closure.
Mark Gatiss, thank you very much…
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