Matthew Graham interview: on writing Doctor Who

Matthew Graham returns to writing Doctor Who this weekend, with The Rebel Flesh kicking off a new two-parter. Here, he talks to us about his episodes, along with Life On Mars USA, and the upcoming Eternal Law…

It’s been a few years now since Matthew Graham penned his maiden Doctor Who episode, Fear Her. Since then, he’s rightly won rich acclaim for co-creating and co-writing the immense Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes.

With the adventures of Gene Hunt finally concluded, time opened up in Graham’s schedule to put together another Doctor Who story, which is the two part adventure of The Rebel Flesh and The Almost People. And he spared us some time to chat about it…

Let’s start with the obvious one, then. How did it come about that you’ve written a two-parter for Doctor Who series 6?

Well, I was hoping to do the last series, the first Matt Smith series. I had a very nice lunch with Piers [Wenger, executive producer] and Steven [Moffat] and we talked about ideas and had this storyline for a single. And we were quite excited about it, but I was whizzing backwards and forward to America a lot at that time, and I was also gearing up on the last series of Ashes To Ashes, which I knew needed all hands to the pumps.

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So, I just panicked and thought I wouldn’t have enough time. So, I contacted Steven and said I’ve got to bow out, regretfully. And then after the series went out, I got an e-mail from Steven, a typical Steven e-mail in capital letters, that read “thanks for abandoning me to do the series on my own. So what about series 2?” I couldn’t say no, really!

I remember we ran a story where we interviewed you, and our lines of communication became slightly crossed…

[To clarify: we spoke to Matthew during the final series of Ashes To Ashes and we were left with the impression that Matthew was on board for Doctor Who series 6, and reported it accordingly. Turns out that he wasn’t, hence we changed the story within about an hour of it going live. A very innocent mistake all round.]

That’s right, of course! That’s actually how the lunch with Piers and Steven started. Because Piers read that article and contacted me and said, “Oh, you’re doing Doctor Who? That’s brilliant!” He assumed that I’d agreed it with Steven! And I said no, that was a slight misunderstanding between myself and Den Of Geek, but while we’re talking…

So, in a sort of way, you match-made that!

The story that you’re doing here is nothing to do with the single that you pitched a year or two back?

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It’s brand new. It’s totally brand new. I’ve just watched them, actually, and I think they are absolutely fab. I think they’re some of the best writing that I’ve ever done. And it’s brilliantly directed, and brilliantly made. And I just hope everyone likes it.

I really hope that those who maybe thought that Fear Her was too childish and too silly, I’m hoping that that will silence them. This is my response!

Can I touch on Fear Her? You’re not a daft man, you’ve presumably gone online and seen that it’s divided opinion somewhat. What are your thoughts on it, looking back? Was it the episode you wanted to do?

I’m actually thrilled with it. It’s not what I’d have chosen if I’d come to Doctor Who, obviously. When you come to Doctor Who, you want to tell a story with monsters. You want spaceships. You want the Tardis in mortal peril. You want big, epic science fiction adventure. Of course, you do. That’s why you write it.

But I was just so thrilled to be asked to write it, even when Russell [T Davies] said, “Look, it’s going to be a more inexpensive episode, and it has to take place on a housing estate,” I still said, “Fine.”

I wanted to write for David Tennant, for Billie Piper, and be part of TV history. So, I said, “Absolutely.” I was thrilled with it.

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What we had set out to do right from the start with Fear Her was tell a story that was aimed very much at children. For children, not really for adults, not really for the older Doctor Who fans.

It was aimed at the kids, because Army Of Ghosts and Doomsday were coming up, and they were going to be very big, very dark and very traumatic. And Russell wanted a playground adventure. He said, “How old is your son?” At the time he was seven. So, he said, “Write this one for your son.” That’s what I did. I did something that was in primary colours, that had a scary voice in the cupboard. I always say that other people got cybermen, I got two blokes with a red lamp rattling a wardrobe!

But, to be honest with you, I didn’t go online particularly and read the responses. From my side of it, the response was brilliant. I had loads of kids write to me and say how much they enjoyed it. And it was only later I realised that the older fans had reacted badly to it. So, I went, “Well, it’s a shame that they have, but it wasn’t meant for them.”

The Rebel Flesh and The Almost People are different. As far as I’m concerned, this is proper, across the board Who. Adults, kids- if they can watch it, because it is scary. I showed it to my wife the other night, and there were a couple of images in it where she went, “Actually, that’s quite scary. That’s not very pleasant.” And I notice that it’s going out a bit later. I wouldn’t be surprised if they put a warning out beforehand.

I was happy with Fear Her, but when I came back I did say, rather selfishly, “I want epic, I want monsters! And science fiction, and gadgets, and lots of stuff happening.” And they gave it to me!

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So, tell us about your monsters!

The Flesh? Well, all the stories in Doctor Who start with a basic idea from Steven. And I went and spent a day with him in his kitchen, and he said, “I want to do something about avatars.” And I said, “Oh, Steven, are you sure?” I mean, the film was still playing at the time in cinemas. And he said, “No, no, no, this will be good. This will be like The Thing.”

So, it’s workers that create copies of themselves to do jobs that are too dangerous, too unpleasant. And he said, “I don’t know how, but somehow, these things take on a life of their own.” And I thought, “Okay, that’s better,” and then we started talking.

He planned to set it in a factory and I had it in my head that I wanted to do something in a monastery with a The Name Of The Rose feel to it.

I love the influences. The Thing and The Name Of The Rose are two great movies.

[Laughs] That’s what it became! Let’s do The Thing in the context of The Name Of The Rose. So, originally they were going to be monks, monks at work in the factory. They converted a monastery into a factory. Then we decided that look, monks, tonally, it wasn’t quite right. So, we kept them as workers, but we had them in a converted factory in the twenty-second century. And basically, they’re drilling for acid, and they’re on a converted monastery, on an island, surrounded by water.

They use these doppelgangers to work with the acid. So, if there’s a problem, and you fall into acid, your ganger melts, but you wake up, and you go and grow another one.

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Flesh is a kind of programmable liquid matter. It’s almost like Frankenstein. You see the Flesh turn into a person. You see how that process works.

So, basically, there’s a tsunami that brings the Tardis crashing to this island, and the Doctor, Rory and Amy get caught up in this. There’s a solar flare that strikes, and it shorts out the factory.

You had fun with this, didn’t you?

I had a lot of fun with this! The early drafts of the script were unintelligible. There were so many copies of people running around the place. We were sitting there with magic markers saying, “Is this a ganger person?” It got confusing, so we had to do a lot of rationalising of the script. And I’m thrilled.

Julian Simpson, the director, has pulled off something quite remarkable. He’s managed to work with doubling up his cast, who are sometimes monsters, sometimes like us, and somehow he made it so you can’t get lost.

It’s interesting you mention the directors, because they’re not getting enough credit for their work on Who at the moment.

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I think that’s true. Everyone talks about the writing, don’t they, but you have to make that a reality. Also, the producer. Marcus Wilson, he produced our first series of Life On Mars, so I go back a long way with Marcus, and he’s a no-nonsense Yorkshireman, and he’s brilliant. He makes things possible.

Despite the fact that Doctor Who gets a good budget, it’s always trying to reach beyond its budget. Marcus and Julian together really got the maximum amount out of these episodes. I remember trying to self-censor, taking things out towards production. And Marcus would phone me up and say, No, we’re putting that back in. We love that.”

Sometimes they went a bit old school. Julian started talking about how a monster has to smash through a door, and they were saying it’s a step too far, too much CGI. And Julian was saying, “No, I want to build a small door, a doll’s house door, and I’ll just punch it in. It’ll look like a giant fist punching it through.” I don’t think that made the cut in the end, but the point is that that was what he was thinking. It got us a lot of bang for our buck.

It sounds like an ethos that goes back to the way they made The Thing a little, too?

Yes, that’s right, and we used a lot of make-up effects, too.

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They look really good. And that’s with the monster ante already being upped this series. We’ve already seen The Silence which, apart from the hands, looked quite brilliant. The respectable men in black suit with the skulls.

Yeah! I think that’s the same here, using the make-up effects and having them there as much as possible. I think that makes a huge difference.

Makes them scary, too.

I think you have to push things more than you used to with Doctor Who. Now, videogames are scary, and I think kids are more acclimatised. So, I think we do have sometimes to push things a little further to get [kids] to really react. 

We don’t give any plot specifics away here, but if you absolutely don’t want even a hint of what’s coming, join us again at the next block of red text.

I did have to ask: have you fused any ongoing narrative bits into your story?

Yes, yes I have. But I’ve got two cliffhangers, which is not bad for a two-parter. I’ve got my part one cliffhanger, and I’ve got a part two cliffhanger that leads into Steven’s A Good Man Goes To War.

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I can say this because the premise of this final scene was given to me. I wrote [the cliffhanger scene] and I put my own dialogue in. [Steven] said, “This is what’s got to happen,” and it was just great. Just whoa! People are not going to be able to wait until next Saturday!

It’s interesting, because, if you were being ultra-picky, and it would be being ultra-picky with the last series, it didn’t do brilliant cliffhangers for the most part. The emphasis wasn’t on them to the same extent of Doctor Who of old. With one or two exceptions. The first two episodes this year both had superb cliffhangers, especially the second one. It’s interesting that you’re going into the second episode of a two parter and adding a cliffhanger to the end of that as well?

That’s right. That was basically what happened, too. I wrote the script, I said, “I’m finished,” and then Steven said, “Now I know exactly what I’m doing with episode seven. I need you to do something like this.” And he explained what he wanted it to include and I loved it.

I’ve said it before, I think, that it’s like being the writer and the viewer at the same time. And you’re also going, “Wow, what’s going to happen next?”

What I find about cliffhangers is that there’s the easy cliffhanger, which is to put the Doctor in jeopardy. And everyone knows that the next week he’s not going to be dead. They used to do that in the old days as well. I tried to make my cliffhanger something that is just a ratcheting up of the story. So, at the end of The Rebel Flesh, you’re not thinking, “Iis the Doctor going to die?” You’re thinking, “Oh, my God. What’s going to happen now?”

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The very, very, very mild spoiler-y bit is over now.

Do you enjoy cliffhangers?

Yeah, I do. I think they’re great, and it gives people lots to talk about.

The supposed regeneration scene at the end of Day Of The Moon, I know it’s got a lot of people buzzing. And I know that some people wanted it tied up, to be referred to. But I guess you just have to say hold on. You don’t want these serial elements to overshadow everything.

You have to put your faith in Steven that he will have a master plan to tie it all up.

Spoilers for Life On Mars USA and UK from this point on.

I was one of the slightly grumpy ones with The Curse Of The Black Spot, but what I think has happened with television audiences is that Lost has taken the piss out of us. When it was throwing something in, and then wouldn’t come back to it until six weeks down the line. So, I suppose that was the frustration.

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No, I can understand that. I think that is a natural reaction, because American television is structured in such a way that there are so many episodes, they throw endless red herrings in.

They’re not even red herrings. I think they want to tie them up, they just don’t know how to.

I’ve been on the inside of that, working with Life On Mars on the American remake. Those guys were all about, “Oh, we loved your show, but we were very disappointed by the last episode, because it turned out that he really was in a coma.” And I said, “Well, yeah. We know he was in a coma, because in episode one we saw him get knocked down by a car.” But they said, “We’ve got something even cooler.”

And I said, “Guys, it’s not about throwing something at you that you cannot possibly imagine.” That’s not good drama. I can do that. Everyone can do that. I can get to the end of a Doctor Who episode and say, “Guess what? Amy’s a cyberman.” And it’s a surprise, because you wouldn’t have guessed it. But the reason you wouldn’t have guessed it was that it was irrational and stupid.

And, of course, that’s what they did with Life On Mars, where they said they’re all on a spaceship, going to Mars. It was farcical. They thought that they were being cleverer than their own show.

Did they get in touch after the episode aired?

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I did e-mail them and say, “Sorry your show got cancelled. What did you make of the ending?” And they came back and said, “Yeah, okay. Maybe that was wrong.”

But I don’t feel that with Steven. Because Steven has a shorter run of episodes, he has more time to keep an overview going. Quite frankly, I think Steven’s a lot smarter than those guys who run the big American shows. They seem smart, but I don’t think they have the clarity of vision that Steven has. And I think Steven knew full well where he was taking those big story strands. He’s been plotting them since the days of David Tennant. That’s how far ahead he’s thinking, putting The Silence in.

You have that other Doctor Who story that you pitched a year or two back, presumably. So, are you coming back to the show again?

I had such a good time on this run that I would love to come back and do some more. I don’t think I’d go back and do the story that I originally pitched, but I’d love to write some others.

It was such good fun, and it was so good working with Steven, and Piers, and Beth [Willis, executive producer]. And then going into production with Julian and Marcus, and the cast. It was a joy, I loved it.

Have you talked about doing more?

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I haven’t, no. I said to Beth at the read through that if I can do any more I’d love to, and she said, “Oh, yeah. That’d be great.” But I didn’t push it then, because I know they’ve still got their heads still full of this series. But I floated it out there, that I’d happily come back.

They seem very, very pleased with the episode, so I hope that they’d consider asking me back.

Finally, then, how’s your new show, Eternal Law, coming along?

Ah, Eternal Law is going great! I can’t believe we’re three weeks into filming already. It’s looking great. It’s being so beautifully made, and the cast are really bedded into their roles and having fun with it.

It’s too early to say what kind of show it’s going to be. It’s clearly going to be a very emotional show, and quite dramatic and powerful. It’s not overtly fantasy, but it does have a fantasy vein in it. It’s too early to know quite the full tone is, like we were with Life On Mars. You can’t tell until you see it cut together! So far, we’re having a great time on it!

Matthew Graham, thank you very much.

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