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EXCLUSIVE - Neil Gaiman Talks Doctor Who And Cybermen

The Cybermen return to Doctor Who this Saturday - and Neil Gaiman's writing them! In an exclusive interview he tells SFX how he created a "Nightmare In Silver"...

You grew up as a Doctor Who fan. What are your memories of the Cybermen?

I think the first episode I ever saw was "The Moonbase". That was the first time that I saw Cybermen, so I must have missed "The Tenth Planet". I remember them coming out and taking the guy from the sickbay - in my memory, interestingly, they walked through the walls. And when I went back and looked at that bit years later I saw that no, they came through a door. And I wanted to get that kind of weird creepiness back to the Cybermen. I don’t think I’ve particularly succeeded, mostly because I got distracted by something else, and there was also a point where I said actually, we’ve seen those "Moonbase" ones. You can go back and look at them, there’s no point in doing that again. Let me try and do something else with it, in the same kind of way that Mark Gatiss approached the Ice Warriors.

For me the absolute joy of bringing back the Cybermen was coming up with a weird rationalisation: in the Tom Baker universe the Cybermen pretty much died out. They were incredibly unsuccessful and clunky. And then you get the Cybus Cybermen. My theory is the Cybus Cybermen were sent to Victorian days and zapped off into time and space at the end of "The Next Doctor". They met a bunch of the Mondasian/Telosian Cybermen, and there was some cross-breeding and interchange of technology, which is why you then get the ones that look like, but actually aren't, the Cybus Cybermen. And then I thought well, they’re going to keep upgrading themselves – my computer doesn’t look like it did five or ten years ago, definitely not 15 years ago. It’s going to be faster and it’s going to be better. So let's make the Cybermen faster and slicker and better. And with their faces let's try and go back to something that felt a little creepier. I looked at the "Moonbase" ones and they have this weird, impassive, uncanny valley thing of just the two eyes and the mouth, in the position they would be on a human face. It's just really unsettling, and I wanted that.

Was there a sense of menace that you wanted to restore to them?

I definitely felt like the last few times we’ve seen them they are incredibly easy to defeat, plus they make so much noise moving around that you could just run away. If you hear something going hissy-hissy-clunk-clunk-clunk you can always go somewhere else. So there was definitely an early draft in which I changed that. I tend to do expensive things in early drafts and then they go away, so there was a scene where I had a hundred Cybermen coming up out of the sea on somewhere like Brighton Beach, which is all pebbles, and then moving completely silently over the pebbles. One human is running away from them and you can hear the crunchy-crunchy-crunchy-crunchy of the pebbles - but they’re completely silent, which I really liked, the idea that you can’t hear them coming at all.

In "The Moonbase" they’re sort of like ninjas, aren’t they…

Yeah. They’re in the shadows, they come in, they strike, they do the thing, they move out. In this it’s probably fair to say it’s more like Zulu by the time we get to the end.

Do you get much say in terms of the design? Is it something you put in your script – "I want sleeker Cybermen"?

Yeah, I do. But mostly I got to go to Cardiff and they said "Let us show you the stuff that’s come in from the art department". They said "What do you think?", and I said "Well, I like this face, I like this body – can we put this body on this face?" The only point where I really pushed them was when they sent me the face design and I just felt it wasn’t quite right. And I pushed for the "Moonbase" face on a much higher tech thing. It's that effect we’re going for – a very simple circular eye, a slash for the mouth, and they are where they are on a human face. Don’t get creative, because the more creative you get, the more we lose the uncanny valley. And for me there is that wonderful uncanny valley of how little it takes to make you go "This is a face". It just takes two eyes in the right place and proportion, and a little mouth. And it’s absolutely impassive, which makes it really scary.

What’s inspiring about writing for Matt Smith?

Matt’s brilliant. That’s actually what’s inspiring – I think he’s probably one of the finest actors I’ve ever written for. When I wrote "The Doctor’s Wife" I wrote the first draft with David Tennant in my head because he was my last Doctor. And it got gradually Mattier because it got moved from season five to season six, so I did more "Bunk beds are cool!" and that kind of stuff, changed some of the dialogue to fit what I’d seen Matt doing. But then when I saw what he did…I hadn’t written him breaking down into tears, but he played it, and he was good. And I thought ok, you are really a good actor, you are really smart. So for this episode, there was part of me going well, I think I know how good you are, let me write a bunch of stuff that I wouldn’t write for somebody unless I was absolutely convinced they could pull it off, because if they can’t pull it off the episode is going to be dead. You are going to have to do stuff that is absolutely way beyond anything anyone has asked you to do so far, and I think you can deliver it… and he does. And he doesn’t just do it, he makes it look easy. No, he doesn’t even make it look easy – he makes it look part of the story. You don’t watch it going "Oh my gosh what an amazing, bravura, brilliant performance". You go "Yes, of course that’s what would happen", and you’re just there in the story. And that for me is Matt’s genius, because there are other actors who could have done what I asked Matt to do, and you would have been going "Bravura performance, remarkable work", and actually you would have been out of the story. There are things I get him to do in this that are actually barking mad – but he can do that! So you get Matt doing twice as much acting as you’d expect.

And you’re writing for Jenna-Louise, too...

She is so great. It’s that thing where Jenna-Louise delivers a line of dialogue that is so much better than you hoped it could possibly be when you wrote it. I gave her lines and every line is delivered in a way that is as good or better than I’d hoped.

Do you have more ideas for Doctor Who ?

Yeah. I do. I don’t have much time – I’m in this weird position right now where I love Doctor Who , really, really love Doctor Who . The biggest problem that I have with Doctor Who is that it genuinely takes time to do, and you wind up doing lots of drafts. This one was probably essentially three major drafts, as opposed to the eleven that "The Doctor’s Wife" went through, because that went through a whole bunch including "Oh, good, now we’ve got Rory…" At least three, maybe four, probably five, including some minor roll-outs, but there was a lot of last year that was given to writing this, and it’s time that doesn’t go to anything else. I’m happy enough to say that I’m rich enough from book income and everything else that I can quite happily give 4 months or 6 months of my life to writing an episode of Doctor Who , just because it makes me happy.

I would love to do more Doctor Who . There’s so much stuff I’d love to do. Right now, it’s impossible. Right now I’m looking at it with that kind of horrible feeling that you genuinely can’t stop and raid the sweet shop. You’re on the bus and you’re going past and you’re going to be late for school if you go… so I tend to laugh when people say "Would you like to be the next showrunner after Moffat?" I don’t even have time to write an episode! You want me to be showrunner? Nothing else will happen in my entire life!

Nick Setchfield

Doctor Who "Nightmare In Silver" is on BBC One on Saturday 11 May at 7pm

Nick Setchfield
Nick Setchfield

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.