INTERVIEW: Meeting The Doctor

It is almost exactly a year ago – December 2006. We’re at a party in London to celebrate the Doctor Who Christmas special premiere. There is an ebullient sense of anything being possible – not least because we are at a social occasion at which both the Daleks and the Tardis are present, right next to the table of free wine.

At some point during the party, two men leaning on a Dalek start a conversation. They are Edward Russell, Doctor Who’s suave brand manager, and Will Baker – Russell’s friend, and, slightly more infamously, Kylie Minogue’s stylist/photographer/“gay husband”.

Baker is a huge Doctor Who fan. Russell has previously fixed it for Baker to visit the Doctor Who set, go into the Tardis, feel the tentacles of the Ood, etc. Now, at the party, Russell muses on how Baker might try to pay him back for these favours.

“You could get Kylie to do a role in Doctor Who,” Russell suggests, perhaps not wholly seriously. Baker is enthused by the idea. What’s more, he thinks Kylie will be. After a few more glasses of white wine, the two of them canter tipsily up to the writer Russell T. Davies, the man in charge of Doctor Who, and outline their proposal. “How intriiiii-guing,” Davies says, stroking his chin.

The next day, a phone call is placed. Three days later, in an extremely covert operation, Russell T. Davies and Julie Gardner, the executive producer, meet Kylie in London.

Two months further on, the first rumours of Kylie’s involvement with the Christmas special appear in the tabloids. Everyone denies everything.

May 2007

The first tone meeting. This is what tone meetings are: everyone is gathered together in an almost wholly airless room at the BBC in Cardiff. We have the heads of make-up, costume, photography, lighting, practical effects, publicity, prosthetics, personnel and representatives from an independent special effects company, the Mill. Everyone is gathered around a gigantic conference table. Here, tea is drunk, a box of sad-looking doughnuts is attacked, and industry chitchat is made. Then, one by one, every head of department explains, very cheerfully, why the show can’t actually be made.

It starts well. Russell T. Davies, writer and executive producer, arrives with Julie Gardner and Phil Collinson, the producer. These are Doctor Who’s Three Musketeers – the three who relaunched the show, four years ago, after it had languished for 16 years in a semi-mocked abeyance.

Their working chemistry is complex, but boils down to Davies – tall, joyous and exuberant – coming up with vaultingly ambitious ideas for the show, that Gardner – small, Welsh and fiery, with explosive hair – fights tooth and nail in a series of dull meetings to achieve, while constantly, lovingly prodding Davies to make it better. “Make me cry here,” she’ll say, during a script meeting. Collinson, meanwhile, affects an airy, wry disconnection from the whole process.

“Welcome to the Christmas special!” Davies says, opening the meeting. There is a big pause. Everyone considers the fat script on the table in front of them. “There are a lot of shots, aren’t there?” Davies says, finally. This is greeted with stoic, wartime laughter. “A lot of shots” is the least of it. As a TV production, Doctor Who is unprecedented. There is an almost wholly new cast and new set every week, and many episodes have as many special effects and prosthetics as a Hollywood movie. The scale, ambition and logistics are the stuff of small coronary failures. And yet, this is a children’s TV show, shot in Wales, by the BBC.

“Well, every episode has a key word we all refer to if we feel like we’re getting lost,” Davies says. “And the word for this one is? DISASTER MOVIE! I want you all to think of fat old Shelley Winters swimming down the tunnel, God bless her, Steve McQueen looking handsome in The Towering Inferno. Hopefully, we’ve got Kylie Minogue as the sexy alien waitress [the room cheers], but we’ve got Claire Goose on speed-dial, in case Kylie can’t do it.” More laughter.

Davies begins reading the script aloud, while each department chips in their problems in making it happen. Among a flurry of technical, logical and narrative queries, the most urgent seems to be an ecumenical matter: what do angels wear underneath their robes? The Christmas special has its own robot angels – the Host – and no one knows the specifics of their heavenly underwear.

“What happens when they fly and we see up their skirts?” Collinson asks. “Are we going to see the lot? Imagine their meat and two veg coming at you. On Christmas Day. Brrrr.”

The tone meeting is adjourned by 4pm. Outside, Davies – a man who smokes cigarettes in much the same blithe, joyous way as a child eats an orange – lights up and joins in the excited chat about Kylie. All the crew have been buying new shirts, he laughs.

“They all think they’re going to marry her,” Davies says, lighting a second. “Even the gays. Especially the gays.”

July 2007

First Script read-through, Tottenham Court Road, London. The script meeting is like this: everyone who was at the tone meeting is here, plus the cast, plus people who’ve blagged their way in so they can meet Kylie. Everyone is very, very excited. The smell of aftershave is palpable. New shoes squeak. New shirts rustle.

Russell T. Davies enters. “Kylie! Kylie!” he says to the room at large, waving his hands in the air, voicing everyone’s hysteria. David Tennant enters shortly afterwards, looking rock’n’roll in jeans and a Lou Reed T-shirt, to a hubbub of “David!” It’s a bit like a jubilant Fonz walking into Al’s diner.

Julie Gardner bustles into the room. “Guess what!” she hoots with excitement. “Security found a Sun photographer hiding in a cupboard! Trying to get Kylie! They’ve just thrown him out!” This provokes an outraged hubbub – topped only a minute later when someone discovers that there are no plastic cups for tea.

Five minutes later, Kylie finally enters the room – bang on time, and with an entourage of one, her PA. She’s in jeans and a silky top and her hair – still short and curly, growing back from the chemotherapy – is pinned close to her head. Her eyes are an unusual, beautiful, mineral-water blue. She looks nervous – understandably, as she has just walked into a village of people who’ve known each other intimately for three years – and hovers by the conference table, not quite knowing where to go. David Tennant bounds over and slaps his script down on the table next to her.

“I’m going to sit next to you,” he says, beaming. She smiles up at him, and they sit down together. She puts her pencil box and make-up bag on the desk and fiddles with them as if it’s the first day at school. Davies smiles at her encouragingly, and only looks a little bit like a giant grinning at a tiny sugar mouse.

Everyone introduces themselves, from the tea boy up. “I’m David Tennant, and I play the Doctor,” Tennant says, to huge yells. “And I’m Kylie Minogue,” Kylie says, to a gigantic roar of approval.

The read-through is a little creaky at first – mainly because, judging from the faces in the room, everyone is preoccupied by thinking, “Kylie! It’s Kylie! Kylie gold hotpants Minogue Kylie!” But by shot 78, where she has a key scene with the Doctor, Tennant smiles a real, tender smile at her, everything judders into place and there’s a sudden spritz of Christmas magic in the air.

The read-through ends at precisely 2pm, and people gather around the buffet to eat cake, which is of a noticeably better quality than at meetings where Kylie Minogue has not been present.

Eschewing lunch, Gardner, Davies, Phil Collinson and director James Strong all gather for a post-reading meeting. The feeling is that things are going well, but Gardner is concerned that a key scene is underpowered. David Tennant has also voiced a concern – how the Tardis, supposedly impregnable, has suddenly crashed into the Titanic. “Oh, don’t worry, I'm on the case,” Davies says, airily. “It’ll just take one or two lines.” Suddenly, Kylie materialises at the table.

“Hello, all you clever and high-powered people,” she says. “I don’t want to interrupt your pow-wow, but just to say thank you, and goodbye.” She points at James Strong, the director. “And you need to crack the whip on me. When you know me better.” And with a twinkly, minxy finger-wave, she leaves.

“Ooooooh,” Strong says. “Kylie,” Davies sighs.

Later, waiting for a cab, Edward Russell points out that “Astrid”, Kylie’s character’s name, is an anagram of Tardis. “Russell didn’t say anything about it. We just noticed. You never know with him whether it means something very significant, or not.”

Cardiff, July 17

On location. In the rain. This is a good day for the employees in the businesses located in the Baltic Building, Cardiff. For despite a heavy security presence and a series of screens having been erected, they can see directly into the informal “Green Room” of the Doctor Who Christmas special – ie, the car park, where everyone smokes. Here, under the gaze of half a dozen secretaries and clerks, sundry angels, aliens and Time Lords from a top-secret show smoke fags and drink tea.

“At least no one’s got masks on,” Edward Russell says. “Last year, on the episode with all the slave-pig monsters, I had all these pigs coming up to me and going, ‘Hi, Ed,’ and I didn't have a clue who they were. You just have to busk it until the penny drops and you go, ‘Oh, this pig is BRIAN!’”

We join Doctor Who stalwart Paul Kasey, dressed as an angel, but who has played every Who monster going – Slitheen, Cyberman, Judoon, Robot Santa, Hero Pig. He voices his relief that these Christmas special monsters aren’t particularly scary. “When you’re a Cyberman, hardly anyone asks you if you want to go for a fag,” he says, sadly.

On set, a semi-neglected building has been done up to look like the interior of the Titanic – Christmas trees, a parquet dancefloor, a delicious, turn-of-the-century, intergalactic buffet.

Down a quiet staircase to the side, one can hear the unmistakable sound of Kylie Minogue being lovely. “Wow – are you the guys who did all the sanding downstairs?” she’s asking two star-struck council workmen, engaged in renovating a dilapidated staircase.

David Tennant comes bounding over between takes. This morning, he explains, collapsing leggily on to a chair, he and Kylie did the modelling for the Doctor Who dolls, already tipped to be one of the Christmas bestsellers. The trick is, he says, to have a completely blank expression when they photograph you. He learnt this as a child, playing with his own Doctor Who toys. “If the figures look happy, or fierce, or anything, it’s bound to ruin some scene you’ve got going on. The versatile action figure is the blank-faced action figure.”

Called back on set, Tennant bounds back on to the Titanic, and delivers Davies’s explanation of how the Tardis, despite supposedly being impenetrable, has crashed into a gigantic liner. “I was just rebuilding her,” he says, as the Doctor, squinting in the lights, “left my defences down – and bumped into the Titanic.”

It explains the gigantic plot anomaly. It also neatly back-references the fact that the Tardis had been turned “evil” by John Simm’s Master at the end of the last series and needed mending.

That night – the night with the most spectacular sunset of the year – there is a party to celebrate Kylie’s last day on set. The Roald Dahl Suite of the modish St David’s Hotel is reserved for the cast and crew to let their hair down. In a room full of jeans and washed faces, Kylie materialises in a skin-tight dress of gold and silver lace, and Christian Louboutin heels. She looks around the suite – a windowless corridor with a small, sad-looking bar at the end of it. “This is awful,” she says, reasonably. There is a small pause. “Everyone follow me!”

Like Maria leading the von Trapp children over the mountains in The Sound Of Music, Kylie leads cast and crew down two flights of stairs, across the lobby, heels clicking, and into the beautiful St David’s Hotel bar. There are five businessmen in there, having a small meeting over a single beer. When the Doctor Who massive enters the room, spearheaded by Kylie Minogue, their jaws drop to the floor. Edward Russell escorts Kylie to the bar. “Ms Minogue would like to move her bar-tab to this bar. There isn’t a problem with that, is there?”

“Of course not!”, the manager says, a faint sheen of sweat on his brow.

For the next eight hours, everyone parties hard. On the left, we have the show’s make-up artists explaining, with owlish, technical passion, why you shouldn’t drink flaming Sambucas while wearing lip-gloss – “It’s made of petroleum jelly. It sets fire to your face.” On the right, we have Ms Minogue, working through a steady stream of pink cosmopolitans and sporadically screaming.

David Tennant – although engaged in a very silly conversation about the potential innuendo contained in motorway signs (“I mean, slip roads! Really!”) – brings his evening to a gentle end after just three whiskies. “That’s enough for me,” he says, quietly leaving the party. The week before, his mother had died after a long illness.

Kylie finally leaves the party at 1.30am, shortly after dropping her drink on the floor (“Ooops! Better get another!”), spanking people’s bottoms and hugging them as she leaves the room. There is a collective sigh as she leaves. It’s a bit like when someone turns the fairylights off on the tree.

Still. The last person goes to bed at 5am.

November 28

The final edit. A screening room at the BBC in Cardiff. It is more than two months since the wrap party. Someone has decorated the room with two Christmas trees, a plate of mince pies and a yule log. Davies, Gardner and Collinson scream when they see them.

Four weeks previously, they convened for the first edit of the show – a fraught experience. The show was running 11 minutes too long – catastrophic in TV terms. The story wasn’t gelling, and Kylie and David Tennant seemed somehow sidelined within the plot. Davies spent the screening barking, “Too slow! It’s too slow! I feel like tearing my hair out by the end of every scene!”, and Gardner kept moaning, “More Kylie! We need more close-ups of Kylie!”

In the downcast silence that followed the last scene, Gardner launched into her role as chief cheerleader of the show. “What everyone has to remember is that this is all easily fixable, and it’s going to be brilliant,” she said. “It’s nothing we haven’t coped with before. Remember Tooth & Claw?” (An episode from the second series.) They all sighed over this undisclosed memory, like Glastonbury veterans remembering a particularly relentless downpour.

Afterwards, Davies and Collinson speculated on why the first edit had gone awry. Gardner revealed that the director had a newborn baby, and that sheer physical exhaustion – plus a record number of edits on the show – are to blame. “This is why we’ll never have children, isn’t it, dears?” Davies said fondly to the other two. They all linked hands – a three-line whip currently out of their minds on coffee and anxiety. “We’re all barren, and in the business!”

A month later, however, and this final screening is a much more positive event. Eleven minutes have been trimmed, alternative takes used, and special effects and score added. Sitting on a sofa in the dark, eating a slice of chocolate yule log at 10.30am in November, Davies tries to pre-empt the BBC continuity announcer’s speech.

“And now,” he says, fruitily, “on the BBC, a trip of a lifetime. Oh no, that’s not very good, is it? He won’t say that at all.” As the theme tune starts, Davies, Gardner and Collinson scream and kick their legs in the air. The theme has been reworked with added drums, which makes it sound a bit like the BBC’s Ten O’Clock News? if the news came from Mars. It’s very exciting.

Although, in this era of the “Behind the scenes exclusive” and “Making of” DVD extras, no one can fail to be aware of what a communal effort the making of any TV show or film is, this final screening of Voyage of the Damned brings home how many thousands of small acts of uncommon devotion are put into making the average episode of Doctor Who. As the Titanic majestically ploughs through space, it’s partially down to the life-long fan at special effects company the Mill, who spent three days painting in port hole lights on the upper deck. When Kylie’s character has a sudden, scene-stealing moment, it’s down to Russell T. Davies taking his laptop on his first holiday in a year and rewriting scenes as his partner waited by the pool.

Despite being set across all space, and all time, this show is made with as many tiny stitches and as much love as a bride’s trousseau. And with the fresh edit, the narrative punches straight through like a fist and leaves you, at the end of its hour, feeling that there are short-cuts to distant suns, and big adventures happening out in the black sky, and bursts of heroic reason and uplift, courtesy of a hot 900-year-old time traveller and his magic phone booth.

“Did you see how many times I cried?” Gardner demands as the credits roll. She looks to Davies and Co. They are crying, too. There is a moment of satisfied silence. The Christmas special has been done justice. Then: “I’ve got a few notes?” Gardner says. “Me too,” says Collinson. “Pages of them. But let’s do a toilet break first.”

Davies slips outside, for a cigarette. He sits in the plastic bus shelter, lights up and exhales. “Well, that’s all gone very well,” he says, cheerfully. “I’m quite excited about Christmas, now. I might even fancy an advocaat, whatever that is.” He pauses for a moment and then sighs. A process that began almost exactly a year ago, at the launch party of the 2006 Christmas special, has, finally, ended.

“Well, I’d better start on next year’s now, I suppose,” Davies says, taking another drag on his cigarette and staring up at the sky. “I’m thinking of maybe a Victorian theme?”

Doctor Who Christmas special is on Christmas Day, BBC1, 6.50pm

Source: The Times 15th December 2007