Doctor Who producer Caro Skinner talks series 7 and the 50th anniversary

So it's official - Doctor Who returns to British screens on Saturday 1st September at 7.20 pm. Ahead of the TARDIS' rematerialisation SFX speaks to executive producer Caro Skinner about what we can expect from the latest batch of space-and-time-spanning adventures...

With this series you’re going for more self-contained stories. Do you think it’ll be a punchier feeling show?

We wanted to make it feel as if it was a real movie every week, and they do feel as though they have a big blockbuster quality to them. We’ve been fortunate enough to shoot a Western episode in Spain and we’ve been to New York for the Weeping Angels episode, which is Karen and Arthur’s last one. With the other episodes too they’ve all got a real sense of scale but also a sense of individuality. You feel as if you’ve gone on five incredibly distinct and equally bold but - in dazzlingly different ways - really unique adventures. We’ve been very fortunate with our writing team as well, because they’re all really talented showrunners in their own right. Without tempting fate or sounding too smug, I’m really proud of everything that we’ve done with these five episodes. It feels as if we all sat down and went “Wow, it’s the run of episodes where we’re going to say farewell to Amy and Rory…” They’re such huge and epic characters, at the heart of what the essence of the show is, and I do think that the production team and the cast and Steven and the writers have all really raised their game and made these stories feel suitably huge and suitably epic to be the last days of the Ponds.

So the episodes have quite a cinematic sensibility, then?

They do. The directors have really gone for it visually, but the ideas behind those episodes all feel as if they’ve got a real crystal-clear throughline to them. There’s a really strong pitch to each episode, so you can kind of see what the movie poster for those episodes would be before you even sit down and watch them. It should feel as if you’re getting a run of little Doctor Who movies for the autumn.

Do you think it might silence the people who said last series was too complex for the casual viewer?

Personally I don’t think the last series was too complex – it was brilliantly plotted, and I don’t think we’re in any way simplifying or dumbing down. It feels as if it’s just a different direction to take it in. There isn’t an incredibly knotty serial arc running through them all - what we wanted to do was make sure that they really felt as if they were just the biggest films that they could be. It feels as if it’s a time when anyone should be able to tune in and watch Doctor Who , whether they’ve been a diehard fan or whether they’re coming to it afresh. These standalone stories are just brilliant adventures. You’re walking onto the TARDIS and the Doctor is taking you somewhere really unexpected every week, and that’s the essence of Doctor Who . They’re really thrilling stories.

Was it quite bittersweet filming Arthur and Karen’s final episode?

It’s an incredible script that Steven’s written, and even at the readthrough everyone was weeping tears of three years’ worth of emotion. They’ve been in Doctor Who for such a long time - they’re the longest serving modern companions. It feels like it’s extraordinary times, because they’re such brilliant and devoted actors and I think we’re all at that point where we know what “Amy and Rory on the TARDIS with the Doctor” means. You feel that you’re really familiar with that relationship in a really beautiful way. It’ll be very, very sad to see them go, and it feels as if there’s been a huge pressure on the last couple of episodes [this series] to make sure that the stories are suitably epic for those really brilliant, wonderful characters. It’s been a challenge, but it’s been a really enjoyable and fun challenge. It feels like it’s big times for Doctor Who .

Yes! Possibly slightly more! Suddenly you walk onto a Doctor Who set and you see Matt Smith next to a whole load of Daleks, from throughout time – we’ve got the modern ones, the bronze ones from Russell’s era and then Daleks going right back to 1963, and it was just an extraordinary moment… You just walk on and go “Ok, I am now making Doctor Who !”

It doesn’t get more Doctor Who , does it?

It just doesn’t. Steven would walk onto the set, writers would come onto the set, directors who were doing forthcoming blocks, guest cast… everyone, I think, just stopped themselves for a second, however long they’d worked on the show… There was just a real magic and sense of history about having them.

How are you going to top that for the 50 th anniversary, then?

I couldn’t possibly tell you! In all seriousness I think next year is going to be a really enormous year of storytelling. I’m thrilled about the plans that are coming together. But before the 50 th we’ll have already shot the Christmas special and then the run of eight episodes which are going out in the spring. And that’s kind of where my head is at the moment, because obviously we’re working on all of the scripts and the prep for that. Those episodes, I seriously believe, will feel as big and as epic as the ones we’re filming at the moment. I’m thrilled about the places that Steven and the team want to take the show even in the spring next year. And the challenge then, of course, is to make the 50 th as huge an event as we possibly can, because it’s Doctor Who , and the fans deserve it. I can’t tell you what we’re going to do, but it’s going to be really, really big. Who needs sleep anyway?

Has Steven ever pitched you anything that’s so ambitious that it’s actually scared you?

Oh, every episode! I think it would be boring if they didn’t scare you. You want to read the Doctor Who scripts and go “Oh my god… how are we going to do that?” And then we work out how, and you do it even better, and that’s the thrill of the process on this show. You want to be scared and then you just want to make it as big as it possibly can be, because that’s Doctor Who . If you read a Doctor Who script and went “Oh, that’s easy!” it’s probably not the right story. So, yeah, he scares me every day! That’s what they pay him for!

You’re going to Spain and America again. Is that the plan, to be as ambitious as you can and give the show a truly international scope?

We’re being really ambitious in terms of the storytelling. The reason that we went to Spain is because Toby [Whithouse] really wanted to write a Western episode, and when we investigated how to do that it was actually just a genius solution to go to the place that they shot all those Spaghetti Westerns in the South of Spain. It would actually probably have been less cost effective and not have such brilliant production values on screen to have built everything in Cardiff. We have done international shoots, but I think our ambition is really about making sure that we’re telling the biggest and best stories for Doctor Who , and then you work out when and how and why, and all of the logistics of that afterwards. Essentially it’s about what the adventure should be and where we want to take those characters, and we’re endlessly challenging ourselves to keep being inventive, and make those stories and those decisions as big and as bold as we possibly can do. Ambitious is a good word to sum up everybody’s aspirations on Doctor Who . That’s the brilliant thing as you walk onto a show like this – you look at everything that’s been achieved in the past. I look at last series and what Piers, Beth and Steven achieved there… and you go wow, they shot the opening episodes in Utah, and they had that enormous serial arc, which they sustained over 13 episodes and kind of got bigger and bigger. You look at the production values and the directors and the work that everybody achieved and it’s hard not to be terrified, because the bar’s set so high. And yet you just have to go “Ok, what do we do next, how do we reinvent it and where’s the next place to take it to?” It can’t get smaller, can it? You’ve just got to keep making it as epic as you possibly can.

This is Matt’s third series as the Doctor. How do you keep challenging him?

With the ambitious scripts that we’ve got every week. To be honest Matt also is such a versatile actor that I think the person who most challenges Matt is Matt. He is one of the most unbelievably hardworking and devoted actors I’ve ever worked with. Watching what Matt’s doing this series, he’s got a whole new lease of life and a whole new energy to it, and I think he’s doing just an absolutely amazing job. I think people will love it when he walks back onto the screens in the autumn, because he’s just so fresh. I think that he’s one of the finest physical actors around at the moment, and he’ll try and experiment with stuff on the set, that kind of just always takes things in a completely surprising direction. I do think he’s a bit of a genius, Matt. The directions that he’s taking the character in at the moment are a real joy to watch. I think the series takes Matt’s Doctor to some very interesting places. The difference this year is that he’s about to lose Amy and Rory, who are his deep and devoted friends, and of course that takes him to some really knotty and dark places at times. But it’s Doctor Who and the times that it’s scary are always counterbalanced by the times that it’s also really funny and entertaining. Some of these episodes have got the biggest, most adventurous, most joyful, romp-like elements in them as well, and that’s the exciting thing: Matt’s Doctor can go from one extreme to the other, within a couple of moments, and I think that encapsulating everything like that is his real strength.

The auditions process was extraordinary fun. She is a brilliant and hugely talented actress and she’s got a real spark and a real chemistry with Matt. You could see that from the second they read some scenes together – you could see that they really fired off each other, and had huge energy. They kind of dance around each other in this really brilliant and highly enthusiastic way. I think that she will walk on to the TARDIS and bring that energy to it, and really invigorate the show and take it to new places. It’ll be fantastic to watch. We’ve got very clear ideas, obviously, as to who the new companion should be, and what the relationship is, and the directions we want to take that in, but obviously it’s also a real evolutionary process. You can tell now that Steven’s writing the Eleventh Doctor but he’s also very much writing to Matt’s character and to Matt’s strengths, and I think if we get it right we’ll be doing exactly the same thing with Jenna. We’ll be really running with that. She is a brilliant, sparky, fun character, and I think her personality will give the show a whole lot of new energy and pizzazz.

Nick Setchfield

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Nick Setchfield
Editor-at-Large, SFX Magazine

Nick Setchfield is the Editor-at-Large for SFX Magazine, writing features, reviews, interviews, and more for the monthly issues. However, he is also a freelance journalist and author with Titan Books. His original novels are called The War in the Dark, and The Spider Dance. He's also written a book on James Bond called Mission Statements.