Jamie Mathieson interview: writing Doctor Who

The writer of Mummy On The Orient Express and Flatline, Jamie Mathieson, talks us through his Doctor Who experience....

Even before the credits had rolled on his second Doctor Who episode, Flatline, people were asking if writer Jamie Mathieson would be back for series 9 of the show. But Mathieson’s path to Doctor Who goes right the way back to his original pitch in 2004, via a feature film screenplay (Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel, his writing on Being Human and a further, unsuccessful Who pitch.

We caught up with Mathieson, once Mummy On The Orient Express and Flatline – his first two Doctor Who adventures – had screened. And he took us through his Doctor Who experience…

You’ve said before that you arrived at your Doctor Who pitch meeting with four episodes outlined. First thing then: what’s a Doctor Who pitch meeting actually like?

A Doctor Who pitch meeting is fairly banal really. The one where I pitched the Boneless and got the gig occurred in a windowless basement room in the old BBC White City building that is now closed down. My memory is that I was hardly the first person Steven and his team had seen that day and that they were all fairly tired. Needless to say I was the most wired in the room.

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I had my four one page pitch ideas and four monster illustrations and I just went through them all one by one. I’m sure my stand up background helps in acting these things out to a degree, but it was pretty much just reading from a few sheets. There was no real response until the end, when Steven began enthusing about the idea of children fearing the flat pictures on their walls. The more he talked about it, the more my hopes went up, until it ended with the question of how soon I could get them a reworked outline…

So what’s happened to your other three episodes that weren’t taken up?

Well, I always hold out hope that one day the ideas I had there will be eventually be used, if not in Who then somewhere else, so I wouldn’t dream of blowing them in an interview…

Can you take us back further, because when Russell T Davies brought back Doctor Who, you pitched for his first series. What happened then?

In 2004 I met with Julie Gardner before the Eccleston reboot. She enthused about a sci-fi thriller spec script I’d written. I didn’t pitch any ideas as such as they’d already got all their writers in place for season one but the meeting ended with the idea that we’d talk again for season two. That never really happened, mainly I think because Doctor Who rapidly became so huge, that the idea of risking an episode on someone with no real TV credits at that stage would have been unthinkable. This was before I did Being Human.

Did you pitch again?

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My next Doctor Who meeting was two years ago, a meeting that judging from his comments in Doctor Who Extra, Steven has totally forgotten. I don’t blame him, I was just another sweating nobody with big dreams and bad ideas. My one vivid memory of that meeting is pitching an idea and having Steven ask ‘What’s the monster?’ I’d pitched a lovely conceptual idea with no monster to fight, which is kind of a running theme in Doctor Who if anyone’s been paying attention.

The longer the conversation went on, the more my hopes fell as I realised this was turning into a ‘Let the poor sod down gently’ conversation.

How did you get the invite to pitch in the first place?

All due credit to my agent, the wonderful Hugo Young at Independent. He’s a kind of shadowy puppetmaster of a lot of big UK talent, including me, Ben Wheatley and Edgar Wright. Which I’m sure are the only three names he ever mentions, in that order.

You’ve talked about how notes from Steven Moffat improved your episodes. But can you give a specific example of that?

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A lot of the development of new ideas or directions would occur in a back and forth in meetings, so few things arrived in fully formed edicts as such. But I remember that the hand grabbing Al in Flatline was totally him. And in Mummy, I think I had pitched the idea that if you see the Mummy, your time is up and within minutes you will be dead, but Steven suggested making it a very specific time limit, and after the read through suggested the visible clock on screen and making our fake ‘movie time’ – where a 60 second countdown for the exploding bomb takes five minutes – actually be real time.

How conscious were you of the ending of Kill The Moon when you were writing your episodes? Was it you or Steven Moffat who injected the underlying character work going on between Clara and the Doctor? And how late in the process did that happen?

The Clara/Doctor dynamic was always in flux and I think making the end of Moon as severe as it was was a fairly late addition, which obviously had a fairly big knock on effect for Mummy and led to the whole ‘last hurrah’ premise.

In my original draft for Mummy, the Doctor and Clara were attempting to have ‘time off’ from adventuring and trying to ignore the signs that anything was wrong on the train.

Fairly late in the day Steven added quite a few pieces of character stuff, mainly to Mummy. The ‘sad smile’ speech. The ‘hate is too strong a word’ stuff. And the final scene with Clara lying to Danny in the TARDIS – ‘I had a wobble’ – was all Steven. Which is all absolutely as it should be. A showrunner should ensure consistency of character throughout the series.

Can you take us through what it feels like in the week up to your first episode being broadcast? When you saw the trailer for Mummy On The Orient Express at the end of Kill The Moon, through to transmission?

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Well, I started the week at a live screening of Kill The Moon in London that Peter Harness had set up for friends and family, which was great fun, but which I could never do in a million years. But it was there that I saw my first ‘next time’ trailer for Mummy.

I read somewhere that Richard Curtis puts a little star in the margin next to any joke he writes that makes him laugh out loud when he thinks of it, because he knows that 20 rewrites later he may have forgotten it was funny and start to doubt it.

This happens with me all the time. I become overfamiliar with the jokes and the thrills because the initial kick of reaction when I thought of them was months ago and has faded. It can all become a little beige in my mind.

I mention this because in the week up to broadcast of Mummy I genuinely had no idea whether it was any good or not. I’d seen a rough edit with temporary music and stand-in SFX but really wasn’t sure whether it would be hated or applauded. I read a couple of sniffy previews which didn’t help.

Did you watch the episode live? How did that go, and what was the hour afterwards like?

I watched it alone with my wife. And I thought ‘That worked, didn’t it? More than that, I think it really worked.’ I celebrated by spending the next three hours doing on an AMA on Reddit. Because that’s how I get my kicks – answering questions from strangers.

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Virtually every writer I’ve interviewed has said that they do read reviews, even if they don’t always admit it. And that they don’t necessarily read reviews at the time. How keenly did you follow the feedback to your two episodes? How much to heart can you take it?

I was braced for a kicking. I didn’t seek out reviews initially, but Paul Wilmshurst – the director of Mummy On The Orient Express – kept retweeting good ones, so he became my filter, initially. Once I realised bad reviews were the exception, I relaxed a bit and read more.

I think having been a stand-up helps. Every stand up in the world has died on stage at least once. I did a few times. I think the mental armour you develop to process that had primed me well. I know who I am at my core. A bad script or review will not define me, any more than a silent or booing audience did. Or a cheering one either, for that matter. Kipling nailed it: ‘If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same…’

In a series run not shy of horror and monsters, you’ve come up with two very different but hugely effective ones in two weeks. Do your future Who ideas all centre on monster ideas of your own? Are there any of the classics you fancy a go at writing?

I love thinking of new ideas for monsters. Usually with a good conceptual core. But if I could think of a good spin on an old classic I’d certainly pitch it. That’s the rub though, isn’t it? The Daleks and Cybermen have been around forever. Finding a new angle is the key.

One of the other running highlights for me this year has been the variation and quality of direction. When it came to filming, did you spend much time with the directors yourself? How much of the filming did you see?

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I met both my directors a few times and chatted at various meetings. Lovely guys who it goes without saying have massively elevated my words with their work.

As far as going on set, I went for a day where I knew things were being filmed on both my episodes, so I could tick them both off in one day. It was also Frank Skinner’s last day, so I got to meet him.

The problem is that a writer on set has no role. His job is over. And watching the same scene filmed ten times from different angles is so dull. So ‘get in, coo at the sets and get out’ is always the way to go.

How far through the pitching process are you for series 9?

There’s going to be a series 9?

Do you have any plans for another feature film?

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I’m always working on new scripts. I love writing spec scripts generally. Hopefully the success of my work on Who will open a few more doors. The problem isn’t writing the scripts, the problem is someone handing you the money to make them.

Your blog has been really interesting. On it, when you confirmed you were writing for Doctor Who, you said you were going to be the “coolest Uncle in the world”. So: are you the coolest Uncle in the world now?

I was always the ‘Uncle who makes bad jokes at Christmas’ so I don’t know how long my halo of cool will last. Seeing a video clip of my five year old Godson pretending to be the mummy felt like the real stamp of approval. He’d even got the dragging foot right.

Can you recommend a Doctor Who story that tends to fly under many people’s radar?

I haven’t watched a huge amount of original Who. How the hell did I get this job?

And, because it’s tradition, what’s your favourite Jason Statham movie?

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