"The Rings Of Akhaten" – premiering this Saturday 8 April on BBC One – is the first broadcast episode of Doctor Who by Luther and Spooks writer Neil Cross (though not the first one he wrote). Stephen Jewell talks to him about the how episode came together in the scripting stages…
SFX : Is writing Doctor Who a childhood dream come true for you?
Neil Cross: “Most definitely! As a personal rather than a career thing, this is a really big moment in my life and it’s something that has been a source of wonder and joy ever since I first got involved in it.”
Who was your favourite Doctor growing up?
“For me, it was really that period from Jon Pertwee through to Peter Davison. I didn’t love it all in the ‘80s but there were many Peter Davison episodes that I liked and Colin Baker was probably a better Doctor than the material afforded him to be. Sylvester McCoy’s later episodes when they had the least money were absolutely fabulous and when he expressed his kind of capricious darkness he was really outstanding. Doctor Who is really something that has been with me my entire life but I’m not one of those people who can quote writers, directors and broadcast dates for particular episodes. I’m not a student of it; I’m a fan of it. It’s interwoven with the fabric of my life.”
How did you come to write for Doctor Who?
“I believe that they first became interested in me during Russell T Davies’s time, which was when I was writing Spooks. Every single time that I stepped through the doors of the BBC Television Centre, I would never have any meeting on any subject whatsoever – whether it be for Spooks, Luther or any other show I was working on – without mentioning Doctor Who. I think that eventually filtered back to Russell and he was apparently keen for me to write for the show but it never quite worked out. But my name kept bouncing around the ether until Caroline Skinner – whom I’m friends with – came on as producer. It was she who said to Steven Moffat that, ‘We’ve just got to pin him down. If he doesn’t have time, we’ll just force him to do it.’ Which is essentially what they did, god bless them!”
Although this weekend’s The Rings of Akhaten is the first episode of yours that we will see, “Hide” – which screens in a fortnight – was actually the first episode that you actually wrote, wasn’t it?
“Interestingly, it was also the first episode of the series to be shot, so it was the first episode that was made with the new companion, which was quite a big task. It’s a very tried and tested way in television for a new character to become comfortable with their character before filming their actual first episode as the actors get to know each other and they then have an established rapport by the time we see them in ‘Episode One’. It was a big privilege and a big challenge, and kind of scary as well. One day when the archives of ‘Steven Moffat: Showrunner’ are published in a big glorious book, they’ll be all these emails from me to him saying, ‘But who is she? What does she do and how can she be who she is?’ Steven just wrote back to me and said, ‘She’s a normal girl.’”
“It could have done but Steven was able to describe who she was very accurately, although it still took me a while to find her and some of my lines for her were maybe a little too cutting at the first pass. But it was just a pleasure to write for Jenna-Louise Coleman. I saw her screen test for ’Asylum Of The Daleks’ so I was familiar with how she moved and how quickly she talks. She’s got that uncommon thing in British TV of being able to speak as quickly and articulately as Matt Smith. She was very dexterous and both of them can deliver a kind of through-mood and information all in one long speech. They’ve got a particularly good kind of alchemy.”
After first penning “Hide”, how did you come to also be offered “The Rings of Akhaten”?
“They came to me and asked me if I’d do another one because they liked “Hide” quite a lot. I replied that I really don’t have the time this time, but they just said ,‘Yeah, but would you still do it? You can work in the evening…’ It was actually presented to me as a problem to solve, which is the complete opposite way to how I normally work as I usually start out with a little, ‘What if?’ kind of situation. Basically Steven pointed out that every time The Doctor meets a new companion – certainly in the post-2005 series – he meets them on contemporary Earth and they then run around London or Cardiff. At the end of the episode, he then promises to show them the wonders of the universe but instead of that they usually end up running around some tunnels being chased by zombie frogs or whatever. Steven said ‘wouldn’t it be great if just for once, one of the companions actually got to see one of the wonders of the universe?’”
Steven Moffat has also said that he wanted to create a big outer space scenario in the studio…
“They came to me with all kinds of ways, methods and techniques that we could exploit in order to create this world. I had to work out what exactly is this wonder of the universe that the Doctor is going to take Clara to see and what has nobody seen in 50 years of the show? But it’s not just 50 years of episodes but also 50 years of brilliant people being single-mindedly dedicated to Doctor Who and throwing in their very best ideas. So how do you create a wonder that hasn’t been seen yet and how do you make it go wrong? And very crucially how do you show something very awesome – in the proper sense of the word – on television using television budgets.”
So how did you go about conceiving such a fantastical otherworldly scenario with limited means?
“In many ways, this story started for me from the outside in. We had lots of fascinating meetings about things like, ‘How big can we make this with the resources we have? Do we use things that were designed for previous episodes that never used and do we have a library of CGI spaceships that we could tweak and use again?’ Marcus (Wilson, producer) phoned me up and said, ‘We’ve always wanted to have a speeder-bike like in The Return Of The Jedi and we know how to do it inexpensively, so can you get one into the story?’ So I started out with a number of disparate and unconnected resources and I used them kind of how David Bowie used to write lyrics by mixing them up until the story began to suggest itself.”
The episode doesn’t only introduce the dome-headed Vigil; it also features a really terrifying Mummy. Did you enjoy making up gruesome creatures for The Doctor to battle?
“I love the Vigil but I don’t think I can talk about them too much! It was great making up monsters for Doctor Who and that really is a dream come true! And it’s actually a monster-rich episode!”