Recap & Review: The Doctor Who Festival… Down Under!
Connor Johnston reviews the Australian leg of the Who Festival and summarises the revelations of the panels.
For the second year in a row following last year’s “World Tour”, Doctor Who has led me to travel half way across the colossal red land mass I have the privilege to call home, once again into the heart of Sydney for “The Doctor Who Festival”. It’d be an understatement to say I had no idea what to expect training into the city this morning, Tom Baker scarf and limited reprinted edition of “Sting of the Zygons” in tow, with all scheduling for the day being kept under tight wraps. What was promised was “an exclusive access into the magic and the secrets behind your favourite program.”… What was delivered was an experience that will not be soon forgotten! Of course unfortunately not everyone has the ability nor the privilege to attend such festivals – and while the experience is never something that can be grasped without actually being present; today I’ll be exploring, recapping and reviewing the festival and its components for those not as lucky to attend themselves.
Panel: Peter Capaldi, Ingrid Oliver & Steven Moffat
One of the undisputed highlights of the day was that of the main panel show featuring Steven Moffat, the 12th Doctor himself Peter Capaldi and effortlessly stepping in for Billie Piper (who unfortunately had filming commitments), Ingrid Oliver. To hear directly from three of the creative personalities responsible for creating the ninth series in person was an incredible privilege. Steven’s insight into writing Doctor Who was specifically informative; with Peter confessing he has numerous snaps of him writing and hysterically mouthing out the script of Last Christmas during the last year’s World Tour. Peter’s initial audition for the part was remembered fondly and described as “the most entertaining kind of torture” acting for a solid few hours alone with Steven pacing the room enthusiastically with a hand held video camera. Ingrid and Peter relished in the memories of filming the earlier and more intimate scenes together during “Death in Heaven” – where it was revealed that Peter secretly consoled Ingrid with the hint of her return. Following from this Steven and Ingrid exchanged some hysterical banter over the readthrough of the Series 8 Finale: “I said specifically there was two of you and you were coming back!” – “No! All I remember was ‘YOU’RE DEAD’ followed by an evil laugh!”
In response to what was, quite frankly, an inappropriately rude question regarding Steven’s writing and specifically the concept of the Sonic Sunglasses, Steven reacted perfectly contending that with the glasses, “Every child regardless of wealth or opportunity has the opportunity to connect and share something with the Doctor without having to fork out funding for an expensive toy…. Which you can buy here in the stalls around the corner! It turns a sight imperfection into a icon, it turns every uber celebrity trying to be cool wearing a pair of shades into a Doctor Who cosplayer – I think it has endless potential.”
With the end of Series 9 seeing the conclusion of Clara’s story, discussion soon moved to Jenna’s departure and a reflection of her time on the show with Peter remarking that Jenna became an “instant best friend” and revealing that early during his time on the show she eased his transition into the show by taking the opportunity while the studios were empty to introduce Peter to the set and show him the ropes. Steven also mentioned that he was particularly impressed and proud with a ‘revelation’ scene for River Song in the upcoming Christmas special stating that “Alex’s performance is more passionate and moving than I thought possible”.
To conclude the panel Steven very beautifully reflected on the role of Doctor Who and the atmosphere of the event by stating that “Doctor Who is glorious in making the show that people love, but what it does better than anything is the creation and romance of a community and gathering of like-minded people that find a common passion to connect over.” Other snippets of the panel included revelations such as:
- It was Steven’s father who convinced him to take the showrunning job by emailing him the now famous picture of Steven as a child reading a Dalek novel. “I saw in that moment a young boy without a life whose soul purpose was to devote himself to creating imaginary monsters.”
- When asks about the most emotional scenes to film; Ingrid replied with “Every time I have to say no to joining the Doctor in the TARDIS … I don’t think I can hint more strongly *cough* Steven *cough*”. Peter maintained that the ending of Jenna’s story was one he found particularly struggling to film: “Your affection with the person becomes so mixed with your affection for the character and it feels like you’re saying goodbye to a friend forever… which of course is not true as me and Jenna stay in touch, she was just texting me about Australia 10 minutes ago!”
- At the time of writing “The Curse of the Fatal Death” in 1999, Moffat believed it would be the closest he would ever get to creating Doctor Who in his lifetime – filling it with as many Doctors, regenerations and Daleks as possible. “It was great fun!”
- It was months after filming before Steven found out that Ingrid had pretending to need glasses since her audition.
- Ingrid read the script for “Death in Heaven” where Osgood died on the way to a Zumba Class … and swore a lot.
- The readthrough for “Heaven Sent” was insanely terrific – 2 Scottish blokes sitting on a giant table – Peter Capaldi reading the lines and Moffat reading the stage directions.
- Peter would use to wind Jenna up by making cracks about new companions – always using a specific British actress in his gags. One day in the middle of a take between the Doctor and Clara in the TARDIS, Peter turned around and Jenna was wearing a mask she had gotten made of said actress.
- Jemma Redgrave has the most infectious and unstoppable “Walrus laugh”.
- Steven Moffat’s favourite Classic Who cliffhanger is during “Horror of Fang Rock” while Peter prefers “Frontier in Space”.
- Both Peter and Steven stated that they would never “entertain the smugness” of thinking they were completely on top of creating Doctor Who. “There’s a certain sense of belonging because you feel so deeply for the show – but you always remain in a constant state of panic.”
Panel: Sylvester McCoy
I don’t think there is – in the whole of the universe – a man more energetic, charismatic and entertaining as Sylvester McCoy. Be it arriving on stage and beating a Dalek with his cane, physically recreating the more ‘experimental’ mindset of his hippy-clad youth or, of his own accord, leaving the stage and walking through the audience to sit with fans and answer questions personally instead of having runners with microphones dart across the room – his panel was unlike anything I’d ever witnessed before!
Reflecting on when he was approached for the role he revealed that JNT, through the recommendation of many in the industry, viewed a play at the National Theatre which had been written for Sylvester in which he played a Rock and Roll Pied Piper adorned with a multi-coloured coat. “I asked my agent to ring up Jonathon and put my name in for the role, so he rang and said: ‘Have you heard of Sylvester?’ to which JNT replied with ‘Sylvester Who?’ and my agent said ‘exactly’!” The first of the numerous stories Sylvester shared throughout the show was that of his audition, in which the BBC tested how his Doctor would fare in seeking to defeat a Maggie Thatcher like character, “which we all wanted to try out in real life”. Another included how during the filming of “Remembrance of the Daleks” one of the explosion created havoc around Waterloo station, the media exclaiming that the IRA had bombed the station and how ambulance workers who arrived on the scene almost had a heart attack watching 3 Daleks emerge from the smokey wreckage upon their arrival. Other snippets of the panel include:
- Sylvester lost his cane at the airport, which was decorated with a silver dragon he named Benedict (reference intended…. He was in the Hobbit you know.) Soon after twitter went on a frantic search for the cane and #canegate was born.
- When the BBC were shown various screen tapes for the seventh Doctor, the producers presented Sylvester’s tape next to 2 obviously inappropriate actors to boost his popularity among the higher ups.
- Sylvester was forced by the BBC to sign on for a fourth series despite only wanting to do three – following the Troughton / Davison law. “They said if I didn’t do four series they wouldn’t allow me to do a third… then they cancelled it anyway!”
- Sylvester’s favourite monsters were the Tetraps from “Time and the Rani”, who were played by actors that hung upside from the roof. “Mid-way through a scene you looked up and had sweat from one of the actors on thee roof drip onto you from above!”
- His scariest and funniest experience was getting locked in the TARDIS prop alone and needing numerous crewmembers to come to his aid and unjam it.
- “David Tennant using an English accent for the role of the Doctor proved to the world something that Sean Connery never could…that Scottish people can do accents other than their own!”
- “I’d never met Matt Smith until the ‘Five-ish Doctors Reboot’, but as soon as I walked in and he was filming one of his final scenes he ran up to me like the Afghan Hound puppy he is, put his paws up on my shoulders and licked my face! He remains one of the kindest, warmest and most talented young men I’ve ever met.”
- Anthony Ainley was a large fan of method acting and completely became the Master to a scarily accurate level. While filming “Survival” Ainley actually physically beat McCoy within a scene. “It was hysterical… It hurt… but it was hysterical!”
Writers’ Masterclass: Mark Gatiss
It really was for me a personal privilege to meet the incredibly humble Mark Gatiss, and have the opportunity to speak with him over his work in an intimate setting. On a larger scale, his panel included invaluable insights of not only his past work, but also regarding his affection for the show and technique he uses in creating it. Reflecting on the return of the show in 2005, Gatiss expressed how everything felt immersed in a sense of possibility and excitement. “One of the most striking moments for a writer was the realisation that the concept of Episode 1 essentially became the pre-titles sequence in the 45 minute format.”
Discussing the variety of Doctor Who, Gatiss praised both the show’s elastic genre and storytelling ambition that keeps the show the success that it was. Focusing more on his own technique in writing he shared that the monster/villain of the episode always manifests from the atmosphere and plot of the narrative, and how the ethos of the show as well as his goal for his episodes is to work on various levels and mean different things for different people. “As you grow up and mature and revisit the episodes you’re constantly realising and exploring new elements of the story.” Finally, Gatiss contended that the most difficult aspect of writing futuristic and alien episodes is not to go too far into alien territory and risk loosing the relatability of humanity and emotion. Other snippets of the panel include:
- “The Unquiet Dead” had a devised title of “The Name’s Dickens… Charles Dickens” and the working titles of “The Crippingwell Horror” and “The Angels of Crippingwell”. The extant of Russell T Davies’ brief included the concepts of a medium and ghostly monsters that eventually became Gwyneth and the Gelth.
- The RTD created concept of the “Celebrity Historical” is a favourite of Gatiss’. As previously reported Jane Austen is an idea that keeps being revisited, however Gatiss thinks some scientists should be visited before another famous writer – namely Nikola Tesla.
- Gatiss would love to push the boundaries further and test if a “Pure Historical” episode would ever work with a modern audience.
- Despite being labelled the “Go to man for period pieces”, Gatiss fell in love with Who through the contemporary narratives and level of social realism of the Jon Pertwee Era. An episode he’d love to write would be set in 1974, filled with oil rigs, big drills and government officials – branded as a “Tribute to the Pertwee Era”
- The idea of Fracking is something Gatiss would love to tackle in a Doctor Who story. “It’s so obvious that something terrible is down there – something terrible waiting to be unleashed.”
- “The Idiot’s Lantern” in its first few drafts was based around radio and music rather than television and featured the song “Mr Sandman” (later to be used in “Sleep No More”) repeatedly through the script. “I’ve had people telling me they’ve had the song in their head all week… I’ve had it in my head for over 9 years!”
- “Robot of Sherwood” was initially written in the style of a Season 16 Tom Baker Episode. Funnily enough Season 16’s “Androids of Tara” was a last minute replacement for a Robin Hood themed story.
- During filming of “An Adventure in Space and Time” Gatiss brought in as many of his friends, including Peter Capaldi, to the set to view it through the authentic 1963 cameras. With unlimited funding and time there was always an impossible intention to recreate missing episodes with the technology.
- One of Gatiss’ biggest regrets over the docudrama was having to omit a scene recreating Sara Kingdom’s aging to death – especially given Jean Marsh had agreed to play the ‘aged’ version of her character.
- “The Crimson Horror” was almost a ‘Celebrity Historical’ featuring Arthur Conan Doyle.
- Gatiss, like all writers, has a list of concepts “as long as Tom Baker’s scarf”. These include Weeping Angels on the Notre Dame Cathedral and an Auton Invasions during the first era of plastic in the 1930s.
Real SFX Show With Danny Hargreaves
The final major show and undoubtedly one of the most entertaining and impressive presentations of the day was the “Real SFX Presentation” hosted by the charismatic and genuinely hysterical Danny Hargreaves – the physical and practical special effects supervisor who remains the only member of the crew to have worked extensively on each and every episode of the revived era since its return in 2005. There’s somewhat of a thrill in watching a reassembled Dalek unexpectedly explode onstage in the middle of a panel show – or a manned Cybermen light up in sparks when members from the audience lift their sonic screwdrivers in unison. The passion and enthusiasm Hargreaves has for both the show and his craft is so refreshingly infectious, and really shines through the presentation. Furthermore the insight into the physical constructions of the show as well as the commentary over various effects from both the main series and Torchwood was priceless.
It’s very rare for fans of a television series to be offered the opportunity to admire and interact with the various costumes, sets and props that are physically used in the construction of a show they love up close. Of course the ‘Doctor Who Experience’ offers this privilege on a much larger scale, however there was no doubting the excitement and atmosphere their presence achieved with both younger and older fans alike.
Lining the area were the suits of the Mire Warriors, the Whispermen, the Silence, the Daleks, the Fisher King, the Zygons, the Ood and the Sandmen. The displays included over 30 costumes sourced from over all nine series of the revived era, ranging from and including Rose’s early pieces, River’s entire wardrobe, Gallifreyan robes, a selection of the Ponds’ attire from over their three series and, among others, the Series 9 costumes of Ashildr, Missy, the Doctor, Clara, Osgood and the crew of Vector Petroleum. Each costume was also decorated with extremely detailed outfit reports.
In regards to props, exhibits included everything from Bonnie’s missile launcher, the Doctor’s Confession Dial and laser weapons – to vortex manipulators, 2000-year-old Diaries and most significantly… Missy’s pointy stick! The display also showcased various ‘Under Gallery’ and ‘Black Archive’ props that haven’t necessarily made an onscreen appearance as yet including a portrait of Ood villagers and Daleks on the beach.
The Festival also included the exclusive opportunity to explore an entire set in the form of Clara’s bedroom and dressing area. The first thing that strikes you in the size of the set, which while open is incredibly small and compact that truly illustrates the magic of television to achieve such scale with various shots. The second and most striking thing one notices is the intricate attention to detail shown in even the smallest sections of the set – that often aren’t even seen! For Clara’s bedroom these included a photo of Danny accompanied with a few boxes of tissues on her bedside table, a bookshelf filled to the brink with Jane Austen and George Orwell Penguin Classics, as well as a collage of frames including a mixture of Photoshopped and genuine photos of Jenna and framed pictures of Angie and Artie.
In between the larger scaled panels, ‘Festival Hall’ was also jam-packed with various presentations and shows covering a range of different interests and areas of production. The most notable of these included numerous conversations with Australian “The Zygon Invasion / The Zygon Inversion” Director Daniel Nettheim, who gave an extensive insight into the many roles and duties associated with creating an episode as well as specific insights into the construction of his own Series 9 contribution. Other demonstrations included: a Millennium Effects Monster Show with explored the realisation and construction of iconic monsters throughout Capaldi’s Era, and finally the Science of Doctor Who show hosted by comedian Rob Lloyd which investigated the facts behind the show’s fiction.
Meet the Monsters: Dan Starkey & Jon Davey
One of the most enjoyable and energetic activates for the younger children to enjoy was the “Meet the Monsters Drama School” featuring the talents of Dan Starkey (Strax / Numerous Sontarans) and Jon Davey (Mire, Cybermen, Dalek, Ood, Judoon, Heavenly Host, Vigil, Whispermen etc.). Despite being shorter than most of the other activities, the drama school was far more of an interactive opportunity for kids to volunteer and learn what it takes to be a monster on set. The hands-on aspects of the show included learning how to stomp like a Mire warrior (giving the illusion of weight to, what is in reality, foam padding), how to walk and talk like a Sontaran warrior as well as exploring “life with three fingers” and how to construct, deconstruct and operate a Dalek. Starkey and Davey both also took questions from the audience regarding their work in specific episodes.
For its first attempt at mobilising the production of Doctor Who and allowing fans to immerse themselves in the experience from across the world at such an ambitious scale, the Festival worked seamlessly to offer fans inclusive insight into such a large number of platforms that work in coherence to create the show we all love. Aside from the atmosphere and exclusive material the festival offered, the strongest aspect of the day remained how refreshingly accessible, humble and interactive the visiting talent were – stressing once again to anyone who had reason to doubt the level of devotion and affection they all have for creating Doctor Who.