Deconstructing ‘Doctor Who’
On the doctor’s 50th anniversary, writer and fanboy Mark Gatiss describes the five essential elements that make a legendary episode
Wed Nov 20 2013
After 798 episodes, 11 different Doctors, a myriad of monsters from weeping angels to merciless Cybermen and several million traumatised British youngsters left hiding behind the sofa, Doctor Who has finally arrived at the big one – his 50th anniversary (though, as a Time Lord, you’d think he could have got there sooner). But how did a low-budget TV show with cardboard sets and alien planets that all look suspiciously like a quarry in Berkshire become the most successful sci-fi series in the universe?
Who better to ask than Mark Gatiss, who, after scaring himself silly watching the third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) as a four-year-old in 1970, went from fanboy to revered writer of classic episodes like 2011’s ‘Night Terrors’ in which the Doctor faces an army of huge dolls and 2006’s ‘Idiot’s Lantern’ in which an evil being – well, Maureen Lipman – sucks people’s faces off. Gatiss first established himself with the surreal farce ‘The League of Gentlemen’, but getting the Doctor right requires more than grotesque gags. Here he reveals the what, where and why of ‘Who’.
‘One of the things I love about the show is that the effects were born of a lack of money and time, and created with a brilliant spirit of invention: that’s why they work. The makers spent all the money on the interior of the Tardis, so someone came up with the excellent idea that it can disguise itself. They got around the fact that it would have to change every week by saying the Tardis is an old spaceship that gets stuck in a police box shape. They invented the sound of the Tardis with a pair of house keys and a piano wire.’
A ballsy assistant
‘The cliché about the Doctor’s assistants is that they just need the ability to ask the question “What’s going on, Doctor?” and to scream. One of the great revolutionary changes that happened when Russell T Davies revived the show in 2005 was that Billie Piper’s character was really a co-lead: it brought a whole new audience to the show. But back in the 1970s, Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith was very much a co-lead and it’s not an accident that people loved her.’
A superhuman hero
‘I think of the Doctor as a bit like a lord who occasionally comes over at Christmas and mucks in with his tenants. Even though he can make a good facsimile of being like us, he’s not like us. The best Doctor is one that can seem human, then suddenly give you a chill where you realise he’s about a thousand years old. The second Doctor, Patrick Troughton, has a brilliant ability to be funny and charming and delightful… and then very grave. He has an incredible voice and face, he’s very impish – and when he wants to be, he’s quite scary.’
A reboot of history
‘Originally, “Doctor Who” was all about historical stories with no science fiction at all. These were very lovely stories, but there’s a different flavour to them. What works better (and has almost become a default approach) is a historical setting with an alien present. So we’ve had Churchill in “Victory of the Daleks” and Dickens in “The Unquiet Dead”. Gareth Roberts did “The Shakespeare Code”, and that’s the perfect story because you have all the fun of that historical setting, but there’s something not quite right about it.’
A baddie with a human face
‘Really, what you want as a baddie is a humanoid one. They work best because you get a mouthpiece. A lot of the monsters are inherently frightening, but actually they lose something when they speak. There’s a reason why Davros was brought in to be the voice of the Daleks: if you give them too much to say, the noise gets relentless. “Genesis of the Daleks” was where he first appeared in 1975 – played by Michael Wisher – it was an astonishing moment.’
‘The Day of the Doctor’, the ‘Doctor Who’ 50th anniversary special, airs in 3D in cinemas around London and on BBC1, Sat Nov 23, 7.50pm.
Mark Gatiss’s episode, ‘An Adventure in Space and Time’, is on BBC2, Thu Nov 21, 9pm.
Watch ‘Doctor Who: Day of the Doctor’ trailer
Read more about ‘Doctor Who’
From the moment it was announced that David Tennant would be joining Matt Smith for this one-off 50th anniversary special, expectations went through the roof. Chuck in Billie Piper (Rose), Jenna Coleman (Clara), John Hurt (the mysterious ‘War Doctor’), the Zygons, the Daleks and Elizabeth I as played by Joanna Page, and you have a potent brew.