Mark Gatiss interview: Doctor Who, Sherlock, Space And Time

We chat to Doctor Who and Sherlock writer and actor Mark Gatiss about his series 8 episode Robot Of Sherwood, 'darkness', and more.

Warning: contains a spoiler for An Adventure In Space And Time.

Mark Gatiss is a busy man but polite to a fault. He agreed to squeeze in a chat with us after a lengthy round of US phone interviews on the eve of broadcast for his seventh Doctor Who episode, Robot Of Sherwood (“It’ll just be nice to talk to someone who doesn’t say Rah-ban Hud!”). Half an hour before the scheduled time, he calls to say that he’s finished with the Americans but would I mind waiting twenty minutes while he has his tea? Take as long as you like, I say, thinking a) how rare it is for ‘the talent’ not to communicate their running-late apologies through a PR, b) for ‘the talent’ to apologise for running late at all, c) especially when they’re not running late.

Twenty minutes on the dot later, fed, Gatiss is back on the phone rhapsodising about Errol Flynn, The Green Death and Peter Capaldi’s Doctor with all the unfashionable fan fervour that once got us all picked on in the school playground. That’s when it occurs to me: Mark Gatiss isn’t ‘the talent’. He’s one of us. A hard-working, talented one of us who’s forged a career making the things he loves, the jammy sod. 

We talked about his part in casting Peter Capaldi as the Doctor, why light and shade is key to the programme, the bits of Doctor Who that always make him cry, dealing with the press, spoilers, leaks and his original title for his Sherlock series three episode, The Empty Hearse. But before all that, I had some words of thanks to pass on…

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First of all, I’ve been instructed to thank you on behalf of my colleague Simon, for retweeting his “If Peter Capaldi is cast as the next Doctor, we promise to write 3,000 words on the One Direction movie” Tweet from last August.

Correct.

That got him into plenty of trouble.

[laughs] Did he write the 3,000 words?

He did indeed write 3,000 absolutely separate words, in sentences.

Good words?

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He took it seriously! But it’s taught us not to place bets any more.

[laughing] The Doctor meets One Direction, that’d be quite a good story.

You’ve just exploded Tumblr.

I’d watch that.

Can you remember when it was that Steven Moffat asked you for the now-famed list of suggestions for potential Doctors which had Peter Capaldi right at the top?

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We were having a Sherlock meeting in Beryl Vertue’s flat and it must be now – where are we? – I suppose it was about eighteen months ago?

We’ve been nerdily trying to reconstruct the timeline.

That’s Andrew Pixley’s job [chief writer of the DWM archive], he’ll do that! It was just one of those things. Sometimes it just happens like this. It occurred to me how perfect he was for it, and then Steven asked me who I’d cast and I said ‘Peter Capaldi’ and his eyes just went… and he said ‘he’s top of my list’. After that, everyone you talked to… it was amazing. I think sometimes it’s just in the air isn’t it? I mean, I drew up a list but [laughing] I did, I left a big gap after Peter’s name. I actually remember putting “He’s the perfect choice. Does that rule him out?” [laughing].

Am I right that you started working on [docudrama charting the genesis of Doctor WhoAn Adventure In Space And Time thirteen years before it actually happened?

That was when I first broached the idea – I mean, I didn’t work on it every day! It was a long time though. Actually, I just found a pitch document and an old email from 2003 the other day, so it’s been around a long time, yes. It was a real labour of love.

Is that an unusually long lag time for you, or is it quite common for you to have projects bubbling away for years?

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A bit of both I suppose really. I don’t, sadly, have a shelf full of completed scripts which I can just pull down as I think some people do – I wish I did, it’d be handy. I’ve got a couple of things though, a couple of things that I’ve been trying to do for a while, but I’ve been very blessed that most things have happened quite quickly.

That one though was an idea that needed to find its time. I’d tried years ago when the show was off-air, which was an uphill struggle obviously. Then Steven asked me if it was something we should do when David [Tennant] was leaving and Matt [Smith] was taking over to remind new viewers that there have been other Doctors, but the general consensus then was that it was more like an anniversary thing. I remember thinking ‘Oh, another delay!” but of course, with time going so quickly it didn’t really seem that long in the end. It was a blessed thing from beginning to end, it was a wonderful thing to do and I’m very proud of it and very touched by people’s response to it.

As you should be. I watched it again today and I have to say I cried yet another time.

[laughing] I cry every time I see it. It always gets me.

How long has the idea for Robot Of Sherwood been bubbling away? Has that been a while too?

No no, it was Steven’s idea. Over the years I’ve come up with suggestions – I’m hopefully doing something for next year which is an idea I’ve had for several years that has been bubbling along. It’s sort of give and take. I remember Steven saying, ‘will you do Churchill and the Daleks?’, and then last year I’d tried to persuade him for years to let me bring back the Ice Warriors because I love them, and I’d also always wanted to do Doctor Who on a submarine so I put the two together and that became Cold War. With The Crimson Horror, Steven just wanted me to do almost like a Vastra, Jenny and Strax spin-off, but all the rest was my idea.

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And then this year, he said, what about Robin Hood? And I immediately leapt at it because it’s a bit like doing a celebrity historical even though he doesn’t exist. But more than that, I’ve always loved Robin Hood and particularly the Errol Flynn film, which I think you’d have to argue hard against it being the most entertaining film ever made. I love everything about that movie.

To me, Robin Hood is a fairy tale. I’m not very keen on the sort of grunge-y versions, which try to add some sort of historical grimness, because I don’t think that’s the point. We know he can’t exist, and therefore, we turn up and he does and so the Doctor knows that something’s wrong, which is why we had all that fun with him speculating on possible alternatives, which presumably everybody else will be doing too. And there’s a miniscope! Which is a reference to an old Jon Pertwee story.

On the subject of avoiding grimness with the Robin Hood story, there seems to be a trend at the moment – blame Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy probably – for everything to be more grim and more serious and grave.

I couldn’t agree more.

Is this your antidote to all that?

This is my antidote, yes. The thing is, I like grim stuff as much as the next person, there’s a reason why Genesis Of The Daleks is one of the greatest Doctor Who stories – it’s unremittingly grim. The Caves Of Androzani, Peter Davison’s last story, is unremittingly bleak. It’s a fantastic piece of television, but you don’t want it all the time.

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I think one of the exciting things about doing a season of Doctor Who is you can have all kinds of light and shade. Now, Peter’s Doctor is already so different from Matt’s, people have really latched on to the fact he’s darker and less obviously human and much less patient with people, but this episode is a lot more light-hearted and that’s because light and shade are good, and that’s how it should be. I think probably it is an antidote to too much of that kind of grimness, my favourite Batman is still the 1966 version [laughing].

With the shark repellent Bat-Spray!

Yes!

You mention Peter’s Doctor being characterised as darker. With the career you’ve forged, you must be sick to death of that word?

[laughs] Oh yes.

You must want people to come up with a new adjective, because ‘dark’ for me feels like a sort of lazy umbrella term that ignores quite a lot of whatever’s going on. Would you agree with that?

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I don’t know. It’s hard to argue against it when you actually look at the stuff. The truth is we never had a mission statement in The League Of Gentlemen, we just wrote the stuff that made us laugh. It is clearly, to a lot of people, certainly on the darker spectrum of comedy, but I do get weary with the labels really.

That’s what I mean about it being really nice to have light and shade. There’s a sort of tendency for people to want things to be absolutely one thing or the other. One of the things that slightly depresses me about television in general is that if something takes off, like Miranda, there’s a kind of panic to make every series like Miranda. And in fact you say, well, I want to watch Miranda on a Monday night, but maybe on Tuesday I want something that’s a bit like Are You Being Served? And maybe on Wednesday I want something like The League Of Gentlemen, do you know what I mean? It would be nice to think that that kind of light and shade goes across the spectrum.

It is a slightly lazy adjective, but also it holds true for a lot of the stuff that I’m involved with. But also, I like a good laugh, and I’ve always liked a lot of comedy, so I like to try and do both in everything I do.

There have always been laughs in your Who episodes before now. Dickens being flattered by Nine in that carriage, or Strax, or something that never fails to make me laugh is that Dalek in An Adventure In Space And Time complaining about being hot and needing a fag…

Ha! Those kind of definitions are very suffocating. It’s extraordinary to think to this day, that people will write whole articles asking if there’s anything odd about the fact that my background is in comedy, and Steve Moffat’s background is in comedy. I mean, do you remember who created the Daleks? Terry Nation, chief gag-writer for Tony Hancock! The idea that you can’t do one if you do the other, that’s alien to me. The best stuff always will surprise you by moving very quickly on a sixpence from making you laugh to making you slightly sad. That’s the essence of all good stuff I think.

You’ve just summed up Peter Capaldi’s charm as the Doctor for me, because he is incredibly funny and incredibly scary and incredibly sad, all on a dime – or sixpence, as you say. When you wrote Robot Of Sherwood, it feels as if it’s been written specifically for his Doctor’s comedy capabilities. Did you mould it to that?

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You always do. Essentially, you start writing the Doctor – I’ve never actually had to write an episode where I didn’t know who it was going to be for –  then you bring in elements of the actor’s personality. I’ve known all four of the Doctors to a greater or lesser extent, so that’s helpful, but then they’re playing a character. You know there are certain speech patterns or characteristics which you can bring in, and then as it evolves from draft to draft, you see bits of footage from other episodes and it starts to become a bigger picture.

I knew what Peter generally wanted to do with it and the very fact that it was a less accessible, slightly grumpier, more intimidating Doctor immediately makes people think of early Tom Baker, so there was that element to it.

In terms of physical comedy, Peter told me rather wonderfully, “I want the kids to think of me as a grey-haired stick insect” and it’s brilliant that with his coat, he looks a bit like Nosferatu, with that straight and buttoned-up look, and he’s all gangly hands. It makes for a wonderful silhouette. Putting that into the lovely bright, sunny Sherwood Forest was a treat. Then it’s things like, if the Doctor’s going to have a sword fight, then being the Doctor, he shouldn’t really use a sword, he should use a spoon, so that’s what he does.

Could you imagine swapping the Doctors in any of your stories, or would that just feel wrong? Could you imagine The Unquiet Dead, for instance, with Peter’s Doctor?

Yes. I always think there’s something quite nice about the idea of certain stories being able to have different Doctors slip in. I think Robot Of Sherwood is like a sort of season sixteen Tom Baker story, it’s like a Key To Time story. It’s a romp and it’s good fun and it sits into that flavour.

There are probably very few that couldn’t work without the same Doctor, but you would have to tailor it. If Matt were to have done Robot Of Sherwood, I think he would have been delighted to meet Robin Hood, whereas Peter is quite the opposite. You would tailor it to suit. It’s obviously not impossible because the Doctor is still the Doctor, it would just change the flavour of it and how certain themes went.

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If Robot Of Sherwood had been a series seven episode, with the movie genre of the week conceit, it would have been the buddy cop film wouldn’t it?

Oh yes, definitely. It follows all the patterns of that. They initially can’t stand each other, then there’s a grudging respect and then they rather like each other by the end.

An important part of all that is Clara. How has the way you approach writing her character changed now that her mystery has been revealed? She comes across as a much surer presence in series eight, very much the grown-up.

That’s interesting isn’t it? It’s partly about things settling down in that she’s not having to deal with this mystery, she’s now a school teacher and it makes it grounded in a different kind of way. Then there’s the inevitable and rather fascinating change that always happens when a companion carries over from another Doctor, you suddenly see them in a totally different light. It happened to Sarah-Jane Smith from Pertwee to Tom Baker, and to Tegan. It’s very interesting for the actor as well to suddenly play against someone different – Rose is different with the Tenth Doctor to how she is with the Ninth, and I think it’s a useful thing to play with.

But there was a definite decision this year to make Clara more front-foot. The funny thing is, the relationship has clearly changed, the Doctor looks a lot older and is less touchy-feely and yet she feels sometimes slightly more grown-up. Steven really encouraged me with that scene when she gets the information out of the sheriff, that was directly inspired by the fact that Jenna was so great doing the scene with the half-faced man.

In Deep Breath? The final sanction speech? Loved that.

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Yeah, which is really clever I think, and trying to flip things on their head like that just makes them much more interesting and less traditionally Companion-y.

Tell me, how glorious is it to write one of the Doctor’s grandstanding moments? If I wrote an episode of Doctor Who, I’d find it difficult not to make every single line of his a fantastic, belligerent declaration of strength against a backdrop of flames. You gave Tennant the “Now no power on this earth can stop me” moment in The Idiot’s Lantern, is it exhilarating to write those moments?

Well, it’s lovely obviously. It’s always a privilege, and still exciting to write “Int. TARDIS”, it’s still extraordinary. As I say though, it’s all about light and shade for me.

The things I’ve always responded to in the old series – my favourite stories tend to be very sad ones and that’s because they stay with you, the end of The Green Death still makes me cry. Jon Pertwee was my Doctor and the final moment of Planet Of The Spiders is so beautifully done, so beautifully done. There’s no music, he really looks like he’s dying, and it’s terribly sad, and I remember that magical feeling that something special was happening, because I always see it in the air, there’s something really historic about it. Those episodes don’t come around very often because it can’t be incredibly epic every week because you lose something by repetition.

It’s also nice to have much more quiet moments of sudden realisation or scariness or fun that just change the palette throughout. One of the things I was really pleased with in The Crimson Horror was the simple fact that it was set in the North of England, which is only the second time it’s happened in the history of Doctor Who.

Is that right?

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Yes, and it’s the first time ever they’ve had genuine Northern accents! [laughing]

Lots of planets have a North, of course.

What a brilliant line that is! But I was really chuffed by the fact that it had such a distinctive feel just by a simple change of geography. That’s not even an alien planet, that’s just 300 miles up the A1. That idea is really interesting I think. You can really ring the changes quite a bit with quite small things like that. For all the fun of the big grandstanding moments, I also think Doctor Who is sometimes at its most effective in the quiet, still moments.

Talking about those quiet moments, one you achieved quite beautifully in An Adventure In Space And Time is of course when David Bradley as Bill Hartnell looks over to see Matt Smith in the TARDIS. When you’ve written a moment like that, it must feel like a wonderful secret you want to keep for the audience, and then obviously after the press screening, some people felt the need to spoil that secret. Does that then affect what you write the next time an idea for a moment like that comes up?

I don’t know. It is a difficult question. Firstly, when I thought of that idea, it made me cry and I was really so thrilled with it, I thought if we can bring that off it’ll just be absolutely magic. The mistake I made was simply not asking people not to, which Steven has had remarkable success with. If you make an appeal to the press, they almost never break faith with it, which I think is fantastic, but I just forgot to actually ask them!

Don’t blame yourself!

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The other part of it though is a bit like the leaks, the scripts and unfinished episodes were leaked, and there was all kinds of hoo-ha, and it’s a terrible mistake but at the same time, the general audience is never going to see that. Actually, I don’t think that the news about Matt’s cameo in An Adventure… really leaked to the extent that it would spoil it for most of the viewers. It’s a shame, but you have to shut these things off. I think it’s very different if someone is maliciously spoiling something.

I remember watching Gridlock, and when David peers through the fog and he sees those crabs and says “Macra!” I got up and ran around the room I was so thrilled! It was a tiny little reference to an always-forgotten Patrick Troughton story that made my week, and I was so glad I didn’t know about it. It’s fantastic to preserve those things if you can, and we all know what it’s like when it does happen, it’s magic. Unfortunately we live in a culture where soaps routinely spoil their own shows through a fear of losing audiences, and in fact, if they had a few more surprises up their sleeve, I think they’d benefit from it, personally.

I remember you talking about the decision to release the Coky Giedroyc-directed Sherlock pilot on the series one DVD as a way of stemming the tide of press stories about what a dreadful disaster it was, which of course, it wasn’t. How much do you try to control the narratives and angles invented by the press about your shows?

It would be nice to! [laughs] I don’t know if it’s really possible, the genie’s out of the bottle in a way. I mean, you can do your best but I don’t think you want to come across as too control-freak-y about it, because generally, as long as people are watching it, it doesn’t matter. As long as they’re enjoying it and as long as you’re proud of the work, it doesn’t matter. I think you can come across as a bit arse-y, but at the same time if it’s something that you know will spoil it for people who really love the show, then it’s worth trying to get that across I think.

There’s just a big difference when you can smell that people are being nasty. I won’t name the paper but when we did our very first press screening of Sherlock, two journalists were overheard on the pavement outside disappointedly saying, “well, what are we going to say? It’s clearly great”. They were looking for an angle.

It seems that untrammelled enthusiasm is really unfashionable.

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[laughs] Quite!

You can’t just love things anymore. We try to.

I toyed for an afternoon with calling The Empty Hearse ‘Backlash’, because it’s just inevitable as night follows day, that they’re going to suddenly decide it’s not as good as it used to be. Every show has this, and then they’ll decide that it’s time to love it again. I don’t know what it’s all about. I couldn’t give a monkey’s really, as long as we’re proud of it.

Am I right in thinking that the Sherlock Christmas special script is being written as we speak?

Well not, as we speak, because I’m talking to you now – I’m writing with my right foot! Yes, except it’s not a Christmas special. It’s a special, but we honestly have no idea when it might be on. We’re making it in January but we don’t know when it’s going to be on. Christmas would be nice.

It’s not a Christmas special then?

The scheduling is not up to us. I don’t think even the schedulers know [laughing].

Lots of Doyle fans are waiting for a story where Sherlock gets to handle a dead goose [The Adventure Of The Blue Carbuncle].

Well yes indeed, I’m sure they are, it’s the Christmas story!

Mark Gatiss, thank you very much!