SFX Exclusive! Phil Collinson on Doctor Who (SPOILER ALERT!)

In our lead news story in SFX165, we quiz Doctor Who producer Phil Collinson about Christmas special “Voyage of the Damned”, and ask him a few questions about season four. We couldn’t fit all of the interview quotes into the mag, so here’s a longer Q&A of the same chat. Consider it a Christmas gift from us to you. Did you get us anything? No. Not even some pot pourri. Tsk.

SFX: Last time we saw the Doctor the TARDIS had been hit by the Titanic. So on the face of it you might think this Christmas special isn’t gonna be Christmassy, because the Titanic sailed in June... so is it Christmassy?
COLLINSON: “It's jam-packed with Christmas – it’s full of it! So it does feel very much in the spirit of all our other specials. It’d have to be really, on Christmas Day - I think it would be odd if they were basking on the beach somewhere, y’know! I'm a traditionalist, I think you’ve got a bit of Christmas about it, a bit of snow somewhere and some tinsel and some angels and a Christmas tree thrown in there and a bit of Santa Claus, and we’ve got all of that.
“It’s Christmassy because it’s not the real Titanic. It’s a spaceship that’s full of aliens and is hovering above Earth and they’re doing a bit of an experience cruise to the planet Earth, basically, so they’ve built their spaceship to be a replica of a famous Earth ship. And they beam down onto the planet secretly and have a little look round and stuff so... yes, it’s their Christmas cruise and they’re celebrating an earth Christmas. It’s a theme cruise.”

Sounds a bit like [Sylvester McCoy story] “Delta and the Bannermen”!
“... there we go! Oh, I think it’s slightly better than that (chuckles). Obviously we’ve done that for all kinds of reasons, not least because it means we can have beautiful big period interiors, beautiful Christmas trees and people looking gorgeous, and a big whole base of science fiction too. It’s quite a clever script really, because it means that you can make it feel like the sort of Christmas film that you would want to see.”

And down on Earth it’s contemporary Earth?
“It’s contemporary Earth but we only visit Earth quite briefly; the main action takes on the ship itself. So it means we can have people in period costumes running around and all those beautiful interiors.”

I suppose that gives you a bit more freedom to be more loose with the period detail.
“In a sense, but in terms of the period, it’s quite a good period replica. We went to quite a lot of lengths to keep it as... obviously we were never bogged down by the period detail of the place, but we’ve certainly gone for that Edwardian kind of feel, and the costumes are all the same and the hairstyles. It’s a very glamorous show, I think.”

I guess it frees you in another sense, cos if it was set on the real Titanic there are sensitivities involved with portraying a historical event like that?
“Erm, I guess so. I mean, I don’t know that it’s ever stopped Doctor Who. It didn’t stop them portraying the Great Fire of London [in 1982 Peter Davison story ‘The Visitation’] - I'm sure there’s somebody somewhere whose great great aunty burnt in Pudding Lane! I dunno whether that would have ever stopped us - I think if you subscribed to that you would never do a historical story, would you? And tell that to the people who made Titanic, which is the biggest blockbuster ever made, isn’t it?”

Has it got anything in common with the James Cameron movie, apart from the obvious?
“What, do you mean have we ripped the script off or something? (laughs) We don’t need to do that! It’s startlingly original. I mean, it’s flying above the Earth, you man - what you talking about? Completely different!”

In your tone meetings you have key phrases you use to sum things up – what’s the key phrase for this one?
“I think the phrase Russell used for this was ‘disaster movie’ and that’s really what it is: all’s not good on the spaceship Titanic. It runs into dangerous waters - or airspace, or whatever you like to call it.”

It sounds a bit Poseidon Adventure.
“I guess so. It’s kinda like that on the Titanic. It’s very much a disaster movie, which of course is brilliant for Christmas because those kind of films always get reeled out. It’s difficult to pull off on this budget but I think we have - I hope we have. I think we’ve done justice to what I would say was probably Russell’s biggest script so far in terms of number of special effects and physical effects and numbers of extras and just the size of the thing. It’s probably the biggest one that we’ve made in terms of scale - and quite right too, obviously, cos it’s Christmas Day.
“With this being the third one of course now, we have two others to live up to and they’ve both been really successful, so one hopes this will be the same kind of business. People are very discerning these days and they expect a lot - as they should! So I hope we’ve pulled it off and I hope we’ve delivered something bigger than people have seen from Doctor Who before. Not least with the guest stars - I’m sure you’re going to talk to me about that at some point...”

Well, I’m probably the only man in the country who’s more excited about Clive Swift than Kylie Minogue...
(laughs) “Now I know you’re kidding me. Marvellous though Clive is...!”

It's Clive Swift! We love you, Mr Jobel! Ahem.

I’m just hoping against hope that he's got a ginger toupee, basically... [as Swift did in 1985’s ‘Revelation of the Daleks’]
“No, he hasn’t got a ginger toupee - I’m afraid not, we stopped short of doing that!” (laughs)

Kylie hasn’t acted for a while - was she a bit nervous about returning to it?
“If she was she didn’t talk to me about it, and she didn’t appear to be. She came straight into our read-through, sat down and picked up the script and read it, she sat next to David, and it was a brilliant, brilliant read-through - there was chemistry almost immediately.
“I think she’s a much better actress than people have ever given her credit for. I kinda remember growing up with Neighbours and you forget that people were absolutely captivated by her character back then. Obviously she’s gone into a different stratosphere now in terms of the size of her fame. I mean, obviously, we would want to cast a person who was right for that part and universally we all felt that it felt right. A brilliant off-shoot from that is that she’s one of the most famous women on the planet and wanted to be involved with our project. And that’s great for Doctor Who. It’s great that the show has that kind of appeal and hopefully she can give it even more. There’ll be people who’ll watch it, I hope, who wouldn’t necessarily have watched it since she’s in it. But she is actually brilliant in it and I’m really thrilled.”

Did you go to her or did she come to you? Because her assistant is a big Doctor Who fan, isn’t he?
“Yeah, Will Baker, who is one of her key creative people - he choreographs and he directs and he photographs, a really lovely chap who’s quite key to her - is a Doctor Who fan. He had come along to our launch for series three and talked to the three of us [Collinson, Russell T Davies and Julie Gardner] and said, ‘Look, she may well be interested in doing one and there may be a window...’ and that was something we followed up obviously, not thinking that it would happen, but of course we’d have all kicked ourselves if we hadn’t tried it. And lo and behold it worked.
“And, as usual, Russell delivered a brilliant script. I don’t think if it was any old nonsense somebody that famous is gonna put their reputation on the line for something that could be ropey. She loved the show and loved the script and loved the part, and it’s a great part for her and it really pushes her. I hope people will take her to their hearts in the way they have done all the other assistants who have travelled recently with the Doctor.”

Can you tell us a bit about her character?
“She plays a character called Astrid Peth, who is a waitress on the Titanic, and her and the Doctor really bond very quickly in a slightly flirty way too - they kinda spot each other across the room, and then the relationship very quickly builds. They are thrown together – literally - by events that happen and they both end up as part of a bunch of survivors of a big accident that befalls the ship, so they spend almost the whole hour episode... well actually I think it’s about an hour and ten now in total. It’s ten minutes longer than usual, which simply happened because we filmed a lot of material. We didn’t want to cut anything in the end, we edited it as tightly as we wanted to and still had ten minutes to play with, so that’s a great position to be in!”

There’s a romantic element to it by the sound of it.
“In a sense, but I sort of think that there always should be and always was. Not overtly - there’s no sense that they’re sleeping together suddenly, god forbid - but there’s a twinkle between them...”

... A chemistry?
“There’s a great chemistry between them. They really got on and she’s very lovely, very open, very friendly. Everybody in the crew fell in love with her actually – it’s very hard not to. She’s incredibly charming and incredibly disarming and I think that really comes through and she’s a great companion.”

How long did it take for the starstruck-ness to wear off on set?
“It was very funny cos she disarms that as soon as you meet her, really. You don’t feel the need to because she doesn’t expect it - she doesn’t demand it of you. I mean, obviously we all had our moments of thinking, ‘Oh gosh, it’s Kylie Minogue!’ but the schedule on this show is so tough and the days are so long and you’re finding yourself standing in the middle of a warehouse somewhere in the freezing cold or the boiling hot, and you just have to get on with it. And Kylie was great at mucking in with everybody else. She did the 12-hour days, she did standing in grotty warehouses - she had the whole Doctor Who experience!”

Did a lot of it end up being studio-bound?
“No, no. Obviously in the old days you probably would have built it and lived with that but because we want to get the biggest scale and size possible we shot all over the place, really. We shot in civic halls for the main ballroom sequences, we shot in various big period houses in Cardiff, we shot in a paper mill for the scenes behind-the-scenes of the ship. Some studio stuff, but surprisingly little actually because getting out there and getting into real, big solid standing locations means you just get a bit more size and scale to it than we could ever afford to build.”

So if there’s a ballroom scene, does that mean David Tennant takes to the floor in his tux? I presume he’s getting his tux out again...
“He does, he looks great in his tuxedo. Surprisingly he doesn’t!”

You’ve missed a trick there! I know there’s another one of [compose] Murray Gold’s original songs as well. What context does that pop up in?
“It’s one of the songs that the singer is singing in one of the big sequences in the ballroom - we have a singer and we have a band playing. And Murray is actually in the show, so spot him if you can!”

We know Jimmy Vee is in it as a little spiky, red-faced alien. Are there a range of aliens in it? Is it an ‘End of the World’ scenario?
“No, no. They’re all aliens but not prosthetic aliens - only Jimmy is in that sense. They’re humanoid apart from Jimmy. They look like us, but they’re alien.”

And Bernard Cribbins has a small role?
“He plays a character who’s gonna crop up again in the series several times - he’s gonna be playing a recurring character. There’ll be a separate press release about him and what he’s gonna be doing. It’s a great privilege to have him on set, he’s wonderful.”

Interesting. You have a joining thread every year - is he part of that in season four?
“Not strictly speaking, no. But you can expect to see him again, several times. Now we’ve got him we’re keeping him! He is brilliant.”

Come back next week when we'll have more Collinson Q&A for you, including comments on the return of the Sontarans and Donna.

Interviewer: Ian Berriman

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