A new era of Doctor Who is about to begin, and one of the show's new producers walked us through what's different this time around. Find out about the revamped title sequence, new cameras and a whole new approach.
Oh, and I really don't think there are any spoilers in this post. Other than, you know, that he travels through time in a Police Box.
We were lucky enough to speak with Beth Willis, who's taking over the production side of Doctor Who along with Piers Wenger, occupying the role formerly occupied by Julie Gardner. She explained why not all of the changes in the new season will be immediately obvious, even to returning viewers — she and Wenger decided to revamp a lot of stuff behind the scenes, which will change the look and feel of the show and make it more like the "dark fairytale" that Steven Moffat is crafting.
Doctor Who is all about renewing itself
Really, the show's capacity to reinvent itself constantly comes from the concept of regeneration, which allows the show to choose a new lead actor every few years. (Or in the case of Christopher Eccleston, every year.) "It hasn't just allowed for the lead actor to be changed, it's allowed for the monsters to be changed and the companion to be changed." And as you've no doubt heard, the TARDIS, the Doctor's time-traveling dimensionally transcendent phone booth, has also been revamped, both inside and out. (Second link is spoilery.)
And there's a new title sequence, which we'll see for the first time on Saturday (if you're in the U.K. or at Wondercon.) Willis says it's
in the same vein as it has been the last few years. The music is, I think, better and more exciting. It's still coming from the same place. We wanted it to feel more organic and more real and more tangible than it has [felt]... We wanted something that you could feel like you could reach out and touch, that felt completely real. We [also] wanted the TARDIS to go on a slightly more dangerous journey through the vortex.
There's also a new sonic screwdriver, which Matt Smith showed off on Jonathan Ross — commenter ID Variation uploaded this great closeup of it in action, while Smith showed off his practice hand-twirl. "Our amazing designer, Edward Thomas, was responsible for designing it, and it does appear in a lovely way in the first episode," Willis says. "I've spent the past few days on a tour bus with [Smith], and the sonic has always been at his side, and he plays with it and uses it almost literally like a third hand."
But the overall look of the show is also going to change, says Willis. "We're using a more up-to date camera, more up-to-date CGI. It just looks like it's been revamped for 2010." The show moved to high-definition for 2009's one-off specials starring David Tennant, but Willis made it sound as though the cameras will be even slightly more next-generation this time around.
In general, Willis and Wenger wanted to do justice to new showrunner Steven Moffat's clever, sophisticated scripts. They were huge fans of the show's look under Julie Gardner and Russell T. Davies, but felt a responsibility to keep updating it. "And if we had to revamp it, what we would do is bring in the most sophisticated directors we could find, and use the most sophisticated cameras, and make the camera-work just a tiny bit more crystal, and make it a little bit more adult. The primary colors and the bright lighting had been a very familiar feature of it for the past few years, and I think it works brilliantly, and I guess the question was, will that work brilliantly for another five years?"
So instead of bright primary colors, the new produciton team decided to go with a slightly different color pallette. "I think the later Harry Potter films and Twilight were an influence in some of the changes we've made," Willis says. (Note to Twilight-haters: She's not saying it will be like Twilight, just that the look of Twilight influenced it.)
Adds Willis, "Steven's writing is slightly more fairy tale, and we've always talked about it being a dark fairy tale, [full of] magical forests with light twinkling in the trees. We've just tried to bring more ideas to the table, with quite an organic approach to it." With everything else changing, a change to the show's look seemed "opportune," she added.
And yes, that means none of the show's veteran directors will be back — no Euros Lyn, and no Graeme Harper, who'd directed classic series episodes like "The Caves Of Androzani" as well as all the Cybermen episodes of the new series' second season. Says Willis,
For no particular reason, we haven't had any of the new Who directors this year. It's been an entirely new crew of directors. And we brought in new directors of photography for each block of two episodes, so the look changes every two weeks. So when you do have the same camera-man on every week, you inevitably are going to have a uniform look. We wanted to challenge very experienced people to make that [particular] episode the best. So as a result, we're going to raise the bar.
You already glimpsed a bit of how breathtaking the series is going to look, with the opening sequence of the season premiere, in which — minor spoiler alert — the TARDIS flies over London. Willis says the production team hired a helicopter and flew over London at night. It was actually at Christmas, and there was "thick, thick snow. You can't see the snow in the images, but it makes London sparkle. We got nearer to Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament and the Thames than helicopter filming is [normally] allowed to go. We swooped over Big Ben extremely close."
More sophisticated storytelling:
The show actually suffered a bit of a budget cut going into the fifth season, but Willis says it doesn't matter because the producers have the best special effect of all: Steven Moffat's writing. Moffat, says Willis, is "obsessed with plot and mystery, and allowing the audience to try and work out what's going on, and always being one step ahead of them. Things like that don't require endless money. It's not just about spaceships in the sky. It's about brilliant plotting and brilliant characterization."
(We're hoping to have another interview with Moffat himself within the next couple of weeks, before the new Who premieres on BBC America. We did speak to him one-on-one at Comic Con 2008.)
Moffat, of course, was in the middle of working on the Tintin movie with Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson, when he left to do Doctor Who, and Willis says Spielberg approved of that decision because Doctor Who was such a great institution and needs to continue being amazing.
With Moffat's more sophisticated writing, and a decision to update the look of the show to make it slightly more grown-up, does Willis worry that the next generation of five-to-eight-year-olds won't find the series? "No, because I think children are sophisticated, and they don't need to be talked down to. And I think the fact that young kids read things like the Harry Potter books, which are 900 pages long, shows you the kind of thing they are able to enjoy." Children can keep up with even the cleverest plots on Doctor Who, as long as the story's good and the characters are engaging, she adds.
Actor Paterson Joseph, who played the Marquis de Carabas in Neverwhere and currently stars in The Survivors, has said in interviews lately that he was seriously in the running to play the Eleventh Doctor. So we had to ask why Matt Smith was chosen over Joseph. Actually, says Willis, it's not accurate to say that Smith was chosen over Joseph — "a lot of people were seen, and Paterson Joseph was a fantastic actor." Some other great actors came in to read for the part, she adds. "Matt, who is only 27 years old, came in with this young face, but when he spoke and he said Steven Moffat's lines, he had a depth... somewhere, you believe there really is a 900-year-old man inside. He is a phenomenal actor. He has blown us away this series — he is the Doctor, without a doubt."
When she mentioned the 900-year-old thing, we were curious — does anybody at the BBC keep track of the Doctor's age? Is this a number that's supposed to go up over time — like, say, Star Trek's Stardates? Says Willis,
I think Steven's view, which is absolutely right, is that if you're that old, you're going to lose track. For someone who has no concept of which way time works, because he's always flitting back and forth, having years in a normal way is completely alien to him. There's a line in one of the episodes, where he's waiting for something happen, and he says, "Is this how time moves normally? It's so boring." The idea that he would be able to keep track after year 850 is ridiculous.
Magazine scan images via BlogtorWho.