How a Doctor Who story changed from script to screen

The original script for 2017’s The Pilot has been released online – but how big are the differences between the draft script and the finished episode?

Peter Capaldi with a Dalek in Doctor Who (BBC)

If there’s one thing Doctor Who fans love almost as much as watching Doctor Who, it’s uncovering new behind-the-scenes trivia and nuggets of information.

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After all, there’s a reason Russell T Davies’ e-mail correspondence with a Doctor Who Magazine journalist became a whole book (called The Writer’s Tale) – fans love to see the process behind the creation, and with a show as complex as Doctor Who that process is uniquely fascinating.

Now they can once again step behind the curtain thanks to former showrunner Steven Moffat, who generously released a draft script from one of his later episodes, The Pilot, so Whovians could see the development process that went into bringing his ideas to screen.

But what was so different between the finished episode – 2017’s The Pilot, which introduced Pearl Mackie’s new companion Bill – and the original draft, still titled A Star in Her Eye? Having read through the earlier version the differences are subtle, but important.

Characters like Bill’s foster mother Moira and her university friends play a much larger role, entire scenes (including the Doctor playing VR and going out on the tiles) are cut, and dialogue is shifted around, re-fitted for new scenes and sometimes even swapped between characters.

The finished episode also cuts a number of face-to-face conflicts between the Doctor and Heather (Stephanie Hyam), ramping up the pace with a little less conversation and a little more action. The basic story is the same – the Doctor, guarding the vault at a university, takes in Bill as a pupil, before the pair end up chased around time and space by a student infected by alien oil – but the execution is altered, sometimes in rewriting and sometimes by deleting scenes that were filmed from the finished episode.

But we know what you’re thinking – you don’t want us to just list every altered line, or tweaked bit of explanation. You want the highlights. It’s understandable. So with that in mind, here are a few of the most significant changes (as well as some of our favourite deleted moments).

A lot of lost jokes

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While Moffat’s scripts are known for their high gag rate, the earlier version of the script had a whole load of snappy one-liners and jokes that didn’t see the light of day in the finished product.

Frank the Fondler

A few choice examples include references to university staff member “Frank the Fondler” (not hard to imagine why that one had to go), a description of episode threat Heather as a “woman-sized attack puddle,” Henry VIII’s extra wife (now implied to be The Doctor, instead of Karen Gillan’s Amy Pond) as well as an extended riff on toilets which only exists in the finished story as Bill’s hunt for a loo in the TARDIS.

Henry Viii

And speaking of the TARDIS…

New TARDIS rules

CapalDis

The Pilot has some great TARDIS-related scenes and dialogue (including Bill’s point that the acronym makes no sense if it wasn’t originally devised in Earth English), but the earlier draft had even more.

TARDIS name

Responding to Bill’s language confusion, the Doctor confesses that on Gallifrey, a TARDIS is known as a “sockfubble”, before admitting that was just a joke, before getting into some more detail about how the chameleon circuit actually works….

TARDIS disguise

Yes, that’s right – at this stage, the Doctor probably could make the TARDIS look like anything, but it would be a logistical nightmare. The series has hinted at the Doctor keeping the police box look out of sentimentality before, but we should definitely have considered the practicalities.

Swapped lines

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Unusually, between both drafts of the script one joke was actually swapped between characters, with the Doctor’s snappy explanation of the TARDIS dimensions switched over to Nardole instead.

The draft script for the episode vs the finished version (BBC)
The draft script for the episode vs the finished version (BBC)

You can easily imagine both characters delivering the sardonic line, but by giving it to Nardole there’s more back-and-forth within the scene as the Doctor works at the controls – the simplest change making a big difference.

Planet chat

Elsewhere, a chat between the Doctor and Bill about planets in the TARDIS is given a new context and location (an Australian bathroom) in a later part of the filmed episode – clearly, the lines were too good to lose even if they weren’t quite working for the production team in their original location.

Lost scenes 

Ever wanted to see the Doctor out for a pint with Bill’s friends, name drop Leonardo da Vinci or play a VR game with a fake chainsaw? In the original script both scenes existed, only to be removed from the later draft.

Doctor VR

Similarly, more back-and-forth chats with Bill and her foster mother are cut, an extended conversation between Bill and the Doctor in a bathroom is massively truncated and a series of confrontations between the Doctor and Heather don’t see the light of day.

Some of these scenes were dropped between script drafts, others were apparently filmed and later cut from the episode, but whatever the reasoning it’s possible to see why some of them, while brilliant fun, were still scrapped.

Too many scenes of the Doctor and co. stopping and talking about what was happening could slow the pace and excitement of the episode’s action – and the finished product is all the sharper and more streamlined for their absence.

And of course, cut scenes leave more room for new additions…

New scenes and lines in the finished episode

Stephanie Hyam as Heather in Doctor Who (BBC)
Stephanie Hyam as Heather in Doctor Who (BBC)

It’s no secret that the episode’s finished title – The Pilot – was a fairly late change from the original A Star in Her Eye, with Steven Moffat referencing the episode’s status as a “jumping-on” point for new fans.

Accordingly, references in the episode to the “pilot” selected by the sentient space oil don’t exist in the draft script, and generally speaking there’s significantly less explanation in the original screenplay as to what exactly happened to Heather, and how.

The finished episode also has more detail explaining how the climax – where Heather needs Bill to release her from a promise before she can leave – came about, as well as a different explanation for why Bill resists the Doctor’s memory wipe.

The original draft vs the shooting script/finished episode (BBC)
The original draft vs the shooting script/finished episode (BBC)

In the broadcast episode, Bill notes her love of sci-fi means she recognises what he’s doing – but in the draft, the Doctor had already wiped her memory once before, for slightly unclear reasons.

But perhaps most importantly of all, one of the episode’s best jokes appears in the finished screenplay after being missed in the draft – Bill’s description of the TARDIS interior as a “knock-through”, rather than the traditional “bigger on the inside” which was apparently a later addition.

A great gag? Worth any number of lost scenes with Peter Capaldi in VR goggles.

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Doctor Who returns to BBC One in late 2020/early 2021