Doctor Who: Neil Gaiman on the Cybermen, re-writing for Clara and the radio adaptation of Neverwhere

The author talks about his 50-year love of Doctor Who and being one of the busiest men in fantasy and sci-fi...

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Doctor Who: Neil Gaiman on the Cybermen, re-writing for Clara and the radio adaptation of Neverwhere
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Patrick Mulkern

RT’s Patrick Mulkern met Neil Gaiman (writer of Nightmare in Silver) on 4 March at the BBC’s New Broadcasting House in London. This is the full version of that interview…

Neil begins by explaining why he’s been so busy and feeling tired.

I flew in from LA on Thursday night, got in Friday, then went straight to the Cambridge Film Festival where I gave the keynote speech. I couldn’t sleep because I was still on LA time and got up early, spent the day being filmed for one of these BlackBerry films, then was I an awards presenter at a ceremony. The next day BlackBerry took serious pity on me and moved the shooting time back by an hour, told everyone but forgot to mention it to me so I still set my alarm for eight…

And it’s been a BBC day today?

Then today I slept through my alarm for the first I think in for ever. I managed it quite impressively. I was meant to meet everybody at Soho House for planning and discussion before the 11:30 press conference began and instead I woke at 11, got dressed and cleaned my teeth in possibly the fastest time I’ve ever done either of these things and ran from Covent Garden to Dean St in about eight minutes.

What was the launch for?

Neverwhere, the audio. Radio 4. This nice lady, who I took for a PR person, met me at the foot of the stairs, seemed very relieved I was there and ran off to get me a cup of tea. It was the controller of Radio 4. I think it’s the first time they’ve done a big press launch for a radio show.

When’s it due to air?

16 March is the first episode on R4, an hour long and then it nips over to Radio 4 Extra for the rest of the week as half-hour episodes. First time they’ve ever done it.

Someone’s adapted it for you.

Yes, Dirk Maggs who did Douglas Adams’s stuff, very good adapter.

Have you heard it all?

I have. I really liked it.

So who are the key players?

Benedict Cumberbatch, James McAvoy, Christopher Lee, Natalie Dormer, Bernard Cribbins… it’s an astonishing cast.

Did they all come today?

No. All came to the read-through and recording but this morning was a quick phone-around of who is available and in town. And would come for a cup of tea. Me, Natalie Dormer, Bernard, Anthony [Andrew] Sachs was there. And a couple of other actors.

Have you had time to see your Doctor Who episode yet?

I’ve seen a rough cut. They’re off doing special fx currently. I’m still going to have to do the last of the ADR work and that thing where you sit down with your episode and you say, “I need a piece of information to go in here and he has his back to us here. Good, he can be saying that.” But there seems to be significantly less of that than there was with The Doctor’s Wife – where we cut a lot to get it down to time and then had go and fill things in.

What’s it actually going to be called now?

Probably The Last Cyberman. I’m gonna pitch a couple of alternate titles tonight to Steven and see if he likes them. The Saviour of the Cybermen is one of them I kinda like. It’s kind of hokey in a nice way and when you find out who it’s referring to, it’s fun.

How long did it take you to write?

Doctor Who has its own peculiar way of being written, so I started writing it about 14 months ago. I wrote about the first ten pages and then they said they’d changed the companion from what I was expecting to something else. Actually the original companion was going to be very much the Victorian governess we saw at Christmas and then we decided they can do more weird stuff if it’s now the contemporary third incarnation so I had to reshape it so it wasn’t the governess.

Do they give you a lot of guidance on the character?

What I got was the scene that Steven Moffat wrote as the Clara character audition piece. He sent me that and said this is what she sounds like. But from that you just make her up as you go along. It kind of worked with Amy and the Matt Smith Doctor. I was writing them before either of them had been cast. But it still works.

Could you give us a non-spoilery encapsulation of the story?

Easily. It just stops at about minute three. The Doctor has been talked by Clara into taking the two kids she looks after, Artie and Angie, for an excursion, a day out, and he decides to take them to Hedgewick’s World, the biggest, best and most wonderful amusement park in the galaxy, a quarter of a million years in the future, because he has a golden ticket and it gets four people in for free, gets you free ice creams and it gets you to the front of any line, which is great because the lines for the Spacey Zoomer can go on for weeks and that’s where it starts.

Unfortunately it also starts with them discovering that Hedgewick’s World has been closed for several years and there’s almost nobody on it now except for a small army troop on manoeuvres and mad old showman named Mr Webley who landed his spaceship there after it closed and is now there with a Cyberman that plays chess. That’s where it begins. This is also 1,000 years after the end of the big human/Cyberman war – where we won.

Did we? That’s good to know. There are some well-known actors in the episode. Can you tell us about the characters they’re playing?

Jason Watkins plays Mr Webley, this wonderful, slightly alcoholic old showman touring the universe with a waxworks and a chess-playing Cyberman. Warwick Davis is his henchman, who is called Porridge and he’s an affable sweet nice and I don’t know if it’s giving too much away – he is the one hiding underneath the chess-playing Cyberman working the strings. So he plays chess and helps Webley and cannot wait to get off this planet.

Tamzin Outhwaite is a captain named Alice Ferren who’s in charge of the platoon doing troop exercises on an abandoned amusement park planet and as we discover, as the story goes on, it’s actually a punishment platoon. They’re all people who’ve got into trouble. She was sent there for disobeying orders. They’re not the kind of crack troop you’d want if it so happened that a Cyberman moves in – a new model Cyberman that we haven’t seen, who is absolutely lethal and hyper-intelligent.

How much has the episode changed from your initial conception?

With spoilers or without?

With, because we can publish it after transmission.

Great. The fundamental way the episode was going to work was always the same. I loved the idea of Matt playing chess with the Cyberman, the Cyber Planner, the ultimate Cyber intelligence and winning. That was always part of it. I remember phoning Steven and saying, “Have you got any chess-playing going on in any upcoming episodes?” He said, “Actually I’ve got him playing chess with a space Viking at one point.” I thought, “Shall I throw it out? No I really like it.” How can I do my chess game and make it interesting?

And I chewed it over and over and suddenly I thought I’ve got Cybermen doing all the things Cybermen do. They are converting people, one of the reasons the amusement park closed down is because they were stealing people off the rides and using them to repair damaged Cybermen from the Cyber War. And I thought they’ve got these things called Cyber Planners – the ultimate Cyberman brains that we barely encounter, these giant computers. Wouldn’t it be good… we’ve never seen Matt go bad, never seen an evil Doctor. Patrick Troughton once went up against somebody who looked like him, and Tom Baker had an evil cactus pretending to be Tom Baker, but we’ve never actually had a Doctor go bad.

What if I have Matt’s brain half taken over by the Cyber Planner? Matt fights it to a standstill and then is fighting a game of chess over who gets the body, who gets to take over, who wins. I can do that because Matt is a good enough actor to pull it off. With most actors you wouldn’t say, “Would you mind playing yourself and a bad version of yourself and having a chess game with yourself and having dialogue with yourself, as all one monologue? And you can’t use any funny accents. You just have to do it.”

Matt is an amazing actor and the point when I had that idea suddenly becomes the glorious bonkers, barking mad thing that the episode revolves around, this bravura performance by Matt Smith as the Cyber Planner, and it’s trying to communicate as if it’s the Doctor at one point. It does the ninth Doctor, there’s also a bit where it does the tenth Doctor but mostly it sort of doing Matt and it climbs on a table at one point and says, “I am the cleverest Cyber Planner there’s ever been. Cyber Planner? Lousy name. I’m going to call myself Mr Clever.”

You also said you were trying to make the Cybermen spooky again. How have you gone about that?

The idea began with: how are you going to make Cybermen scary? And I thought we have a great design, the design done in 2006 is really good, powerful, if a bit clanky. They came from a steam-punk universe but they don’t disturb me the way they did when I was a kid. My first request to the design department was to try and go for, instead of pointed-y faces with high eyes and a small mouth, almost like dog or snake faces in proportions, I said can we go back to the 1967 Cybermen in terms of what they do for the uncanny valley? Where you just have two eyes and a mouth where a human being’s would be but we have something much blanker. They gave us that. They redesigned the Cybermen to look much more warlike, dangerous, because the truth is my phone is barely recognisable as what it was five or ten years ago – why should a Cyberman? These things get to upgrade themselves.

And they were regularly being upgraded in the 60s.

Exactly.

So you watched all those episodes back in your youth

I did. I was traumatised by Cybermen. I thought they were really scary.

Do you go right back to the beginning of Doctor Who?

I would have been three when the first episodes were broadcast. I’m sure I wasn’t watching them on 23 November 1963. What I remember is being three years old at Mrs Pepper’s school in Portsdown in Portsmouth and we had our school milk, the third of a pint bottle of milk we got before Mrs Thatcher stopped it. And it was break and you had a straw to drink your milk and these other kids finished their milk and bending the straws over and going, “I am a Dalek. I will exterminate you.” And I’m going, what is this thing? And they said, “It’s this show that’s just started.” So I came in maybe episode three of The Daleks, really early [January 1964] in the Doctor Who timeline, so I missed the cavemen story and Unearthly Child and came in for the first Dalek story.

Did you stick with it?

I did but my mum did not approve of Doctor Who so I couldn’t watch it at my mum’s but I could watch it at my grandparents’ who didn’t mind and had a reassuring sofa I could hide behind. And there are old episodes I will not go back and rewatch because I remember how traumatic they were and I don’t want to lose that trauma, particularly The Web Planet. Which was the Zarbi – I remember hiding from these terrifying giant ants, and people have told me how embarrassing it is as an adult to watch these people in giant ant suits bumping into cameras and knocking into the scenery.

Best not to go there then. Did you grow out of it eventually or remain a fan like a lot of the people who write for Doctor Who?

I stuck around until Tom Baker. And then sporadically during Tom Baker because it was really good. There was some of that great stuff. Was aware of but never watched Peter Davison, Colin Baker. Watched some Sylvester McCoy mostly because I was asked to look after Sophie Aldred [Ace] at some sci-fi convention before she was announced and I took her round and, having met her, I watched and thought actually this is quite good.

I watched a little of the TV Movie. Did not like it, was not happy with it. Though I liked McCoy in it, liked the fact that you obviously had a Doctor in it and loved the sets, did not like the “Oh my mother was human” and that stuff. This is wrong. All the beats were wrong.

Because of that I had no interest in 2005 when Doctor Who came back and it wasn’t until Jane Goldman, Mrs Jonathan Ross, kept saying to me, “You know, you would love the new Doctor Who. We’re all watching it here. You’d love it. Maddy [his daughter] would love it.” I was like yeah [dismissively]. She was so convinced she posted me the first two DVDs sets, the first eight episodes and I sat and watched them over the next two weeks with Maddy. I enjoyed myself for the first four or five. Episode six was Dalek and I was really impressed, and then we got The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances and I was in love. Sold! Yes, this thing really is Doctor Who.

Did you approach them about writing for it or they come to you?

Actually what happened was I probably should have approached them because Russell T Davies turns out to be the biggest Sandman fan in the world and a huge fan of mine and would probably have done a happy dance if I’d asked to do an episode but it didn’t occur to me. And I don’t think it occurred to them.

I kept writing on my blog about Doctor Who. After The Girl in the Fireplace [2006], I put up a blog post saying, “Steven Moffat will get a Hugo award for this,” and when Blink came out [2007], I said, “OK, he’ll get another one for this.” I was blogging the experience of watching it with my daughter. I was watching the Doctor/Rose parting with her and she raised her head from my chest and I realised my T-shirt was soaked with tears and it was beautiful. I loved the fact that I had a 12-year-old who I could watch TV with and we could both love it as much and in the same way. That was huge for me.

My daughter who was 12 and is now 18 has been doing things like astronomy courses, which she attributes purely to Doctor Who. She got really interested in the universe. She hadn’t known it was out there. I love that.

Has Doctor Who inspired any of your own separate writing?

I’m sure it has and in ways that are almost too deep and too huge to point at. There are specific things you can point at. Neverwhere. It wasn’t until it had been broadcast [the TV version] that the critic Kim Newman sidled over to me and said, “It’s astonishing how deeply you were influenced by The Web of Fear [the 1968 Yeti story] as a child, isn’t it Neil?” And I thought, “Yes it is actually – taking over the London Underground, creepy things happening under there, the idea that you can have anything up to and including Yeti in the Underground.” Of course that’s deeply a Doctor Who-y idea.

Has it worked the other way that things in your books have crept into your two Doctor Whos?

Every now and again I’d notice a line in the Russell era and I’d go, “That’s mine, someone doing me,” which was just nice. You don’t feel grumpy. You feel, “Oh my gosh, I’ve added something.” So while I don’t think there’s anything in my books where you can say this has informed Doctor Who, Neil’s Doctor Who, it’s very obvious they’re all written by me. I like the fact that even people who barely know who I am know that The Doctor’s Wife wasn’t quite the same as other episodes. And it’s very me.

It got a good reaction and won an award.

It won many awards.

Did that surprise you or did you have an inkling?

Steven Moffat was worried about Doctor’s Wife. He was perfectly prepared for it to be like Love & Monsters [2006], a story that everyone who makes it loves and thinks is great and then the outside world goes, “It’s just a bit too weird. Can we have our Doctor Who back?”

I love that episode, though.

Absolutely. I love it too, but it went out into the world and people thought it a bit weird. So Steven was prepared for The Doctor’s Wife to go down like a lead balloon and it did not. It floated and got award after award and people loved it and I was enormously tempted to go, “All right then, that was my Doctor Who because if that’s the only one I’ve written, then everybody will assume that every other Doctor Who I’d have written would be as good and I don’t ever have to write them. Whereas, it won the Hugo the Ray Bradbury award, the SFX award, the DWM award.

I thought, “I have to do another, even if the other isn’t as well loved”, just to say, “Yeah I can do it again, even if it’s crap.” It was really nerve-racking and I said to Steven, “I won this huge award and everybody loves it and now they’re looking over my shoulder. Don’t you ever feel like that.” He said, “No, what I feel is whenever I’ve done a good one everybody loves, that buys me a crap one that everybody hates.” That’s a good way to look at it. I relaxed after that.

Is a third on the cards?

On the one hand I don’t have time to write Doctor Who. It doesn’t pay very well, but you also have to rewrite it and rewrite it and rewrite it and never get paid, whereas in America you get paid for every rewrite, but here you keep going till it’s done. I don’t have the time, it doesn’t pay terribly well, and there are lots of things including movies, novels, an HBO series that I should be doing… On the other hand I haven’t done an episode set on Earth yet, and I haven’t created a new monster.

So there are boxes left to tick.

Definitely things I’d come back to. And I felt on this episode, more than The Doctor’s Wife, they kind of trust me. There’s a level on which they feel: his episodes are a bit mad, not like anybody else’s but it still feels like Doctor Who and it’s great fun. 

And there’s part of me that feels… I haven’t scared anybody yet. The BBC website used to mark out of ten how scary an episode would be [Fear Factor]. Doctor’s Wife was probably only a 2, maybe a 3. The Cybermen has a few little scary bits but it’s running at about a 5 of 6. I’d love to a 9. I’d love to do something that sends adults behind the sofa too and makes them wee. Pools of wee.

How long have you been in America now?

20 years. Much too long.

What do you miss about the UK?

I miss the culture and being surrounded by people who are evil cynical bastards. Who don’t ever smile and if they did tell you to have a nice day, they wouldn’t mean it. In America they want you to have a nice day and they mean it. I will be the judge of that. I miss the little things. The great thing now, the things that made America intolerable for my first few years out there and had me plotting ways to get back, are now pretty much all available.

I get up in the morning and can read The Guardian if I want. I have an internet radio in my kitchen, which means that BBC Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra are the first two buttons on it. Five hours out but it’s OK, when I’m making lunch or dinner because you get the comedy programmes and The Archers.

You follow The Archers?

I’m a devoted Archers fan but in the way I’ve always been a devoted Archers fan, which is to say I’ll drift away for two or three months at a time and then hear it and make a point of hearing it until the next time I go on the road and completely forget about it. I love the way you can always catch up in one 12-minute chunk. Someone saying contentedly, “Hello, you two,” and I’m back. And I follow the BBC news because it kind of repeats. TV is now instantaneous and BBC America sends me DVDs of things they think I ought to see.

What kind of programmes have you caught?

For the last six months absolutely nothing because I moved into a new house in Cambridge, Massachusetts with my wife and something had to give, and the thing that gave in order to get any work done was TV. So I have had no TV in the new house and I’ve been really good and have not been using computers as deliverers of TV. I finally gave up about three weeks ago because I have a MacBook Air. And the stack of DVDs was getting higher and higher and finally I said sod it and I bought a plug-in DVD player for the MacBook Air so theoretically when I get home…

What’s top of your pile?

Luther, Ripper Street and bunches of US TV.

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