Acclaimed writer Neil Gaiman is certainly becoming a staple in the Doctor Who universe after winning a Hugo Award for his series 6 episode The Doctor’s Wife and he follows that up this series by being given the green light to bring back legendary villains The Cybermen.
His Series 7 episode Nightmare in Silver premiered this last Saturday and BBC America invited me along for a conference call with the fascinating mind behind The Sandman, Coraline, Stardust and hopefully now the yearly tradition of a new Gaiman-penned Doctor Who episode. Here are some of the highlights:
The episode has a lot of great elements to it as far as we have a creepy old carnival and something of an evil twin Doctor, and then, of course, the classic villain of the Cybermen. How did these different elements come together for you?
The entire episode began with an email from Steven Moffat, which was a sequence of emails, the first one saying, you know, would I like to write another Doctor Who episode following on from The Doctor’s Wife? And me writing back and saying I really didn’t have time and life was just completely mental and I was sorry.
[pullquote_right]He’d [Steven Moffat] would really like it if I made the Cybermen scary again.[/pullquote_right]And then him writing back and saying, you know, if I could find time somehow, he’d really like it if I made the Cybermen scary again. And that one got to me because when I was a kid, I was a huge Patrick Troughton fan. Patrick Troughton was my Doctor.
And I remember Moonbase the second outing I think it was of the Cybermen. I didn’t see the first one but the second one, Moonbase, I saw and I was terrified of them. I was much more scared of them in a way that I was the Daleks because they were sort of quiet and they slipped in and out of rooms and it was very off-putting. So I started thinking, well actually, I loved the design of the clanky, clanky steam-punk Cybermen but I know that their time is coming up and wouldn’t it be fun to actually see if I can make them more scary.
After that, I think I originally proposed doing it in a fairground like something in the 1950s because I knew that would be really fun. I just loved the idea of doing it on an English beach with Cybermen coming up out of the sea, millions of them and crunching over the pebbles and being that that was kind of not really going to work budget-wise anyway.
And after that, the idea of the Doctor playing chess was there from the very beginning. The idea of a chess playing machine with somebody hiding inside it was there from the very beginning. I knew that I wanted a conversation between the cyber-planet and The Doctor and that the key thing while everything else was going on and while Clara was keeping everybody alive and stuff, there was going to be a chess game.
But it wasn’t until I was actually writing it – I was probably 15 or 20 pages into the script – that I suddenly thought actually Matt is a good enough actor that I could have him do both sides of the chess game. And that would be fun. So instead of sitting there playing a rather talkative Cyberman, which was my original plan, he’s going to be playing himself. And at the moment I thought that everything just sort of opened up and suddenly there was a story.
And I got to do all this ridiculously fun stuff and have too much fun and then watch Matt have too much fun while he was shooting it and watch Matt get very, very sweary because, of course, it hadn’t occurred to me that I was asking him to remember twice as many lines as in a normal episode of Doctor Who.
So I’d see the dailies when they’d come through and watching poor Matt negotiate his way through playing at least two characters, one of them who does sort of impersonations of two other characters, was a delight.
You’ve gotten to do a TARDIS and now a Cybermen episode. Is there any area of Doctor Who mythos that you’d really like to get your hands on?
I’d love to create a monster, really like to create a monster. It’d have to be one that’s interesting enough or fun enough to come back written by somebody else or turn up completely reinvented or whatever. I’d love to do that, a feeling that you’d actually left something behind.
I love that Terry Nation left us the Daleks. And I love that Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis left us the Cybermen. In my head, I love that the Great Intelligence has come back but I miss the Yeti. I would love huge, shambling, robotic Yeti just because I loved him when I was a kid.
[pullquote_right]They seem to like me at Doctor Who and I know I definitely like them.[/pullquote_right]So, yes, I’d love to do that. That would be wonderful. The trouble with everything these days, for me, is time. There is only one me. There’re a ridiculous number of demands on my time. There’re so many things I’m trying to do and, you know, it’s so much more when I’m going to get time to do this, if I get time. I think they’ll have me back. They seem to like me at Doctor Who and I know I definitely like them.
In Nightmare in Silver we see fast Cybermen, comparable to “running” versus “shambling” zombies. Do you expect any kind of fan reaction for this sort of evolution of the Cybermen making them fast?
Well, I just figure, you know, my phone doesn’t look anything like what it looked like five years ago and that didn’t look anything like it looked like ten years ago. My computer looks nothing like it looked like 15 years ago. And I thought, well, Cybermen, you know, they talk about upgrading. Let’s watch them upgrade. What would an upgraded Cyberman do? I thought, oh, one of the things it would do is move pretty fast.
[pullquote_left]I loved the idea of a Cyberman that was essentially so dangerous that if you find one on your planet, you blow up the planet.[/pullquote_left]I loved the idea of a Cyberman that was essentially so dangerous that if you find one on your planet, you blow up the planet. You know, planets are expendable but a Cyberman, if you can’t destroy it immediately, is not.
You know, it’s going to be very, very hard to destroy. It’s incredibly dangerous and I don’t know. If I ever get back and do another Cyberman story, I would probably do something much more about what it’s like to deal with a Cyberman, what these new Cybermen are like and why you’d blow them up.
But for this, we only had 42 minutes. And huge chunks of what I wrote didn’t actually get shot or if it got shot, didn’t make it on the screen just because there was so much we had to do and so little time.
In this half of the season we’ve heard both The Doctor and Clara talk about the TARDIS more as if it was a person. Specifically a person who doesn’t care for Clara whereas she actually talks to it and some of the other companions didn’t do that. What are your thoughts on how the TARDIS has been used since you gave it a voice and a person.
You know what? I don’t really think I did very much. I grew up definitely considering the TARDIS a character in Doctor Who and the only really constant, not just companion but character. In some ways, more consistently there even than the Doctor because the TARDIS didn’t really change the way that it looked.
It was still this wonderful blue box that was bigger on the inside even if the inside changed a little. And from a very early episode, I think it was called, Edge of Destruction, it was obvious that the TARDIS was sentient. I used to love the way that the Doctor would talk to the TARDIS and call her Old Girl and things like that. So when I wrote, The Doctor’s Wife, I think mostly what I did was just remind people that the TARDIS is also a living entity if they’d forgotten. But I love the idea of a TARDIS who doesn’t particularly like a companion just in the same way that there were companions – Leela springs to mind, the old Tom Baker companion after who the character of Futurama was named, who the TARDIS really liked.
It was always sort of – it was part of the script that, you know, for reasons never really adequately explained, the TARDIS liked Leela a lot. So if she doesn’t like Clara, that’s something that may or may not ever be explained. It may get deeper. It may not. But I like that. I like that the TARDIS is a character.
Compared to The Doctor’s Wife, where you sat down from scratch with your own ideas, you were given something specific to include in your story, in this case, making the Cybermen terrifying again. Is it more difficult to write a story when you know you have to include X, Y and Z into the equation or is it about the same as writing from something that you just came up with on your own?
It’s a wonderful thing as a writer to be given parameters and walls and barriers. If you’re a writer and somebody says you can write anything you like as long as you write about anything at all, as they sometimes do, those – you know, I’m not very likely ever to write those stories because whereas if somebody says to me, “We’d like a really good story about Shakespeare and cats,” I’m much more likely to go, “What? Well, how can you ask me about Shakespeare and cat? Well, hang on, that would be great.”
What if Shakespeare’s cat wrote his plays? And suddenly you’re off on this sort of weird place and you’re making stuff. In the case of the Cybermen, it’s set up and a list of things that I had to make sure were in my episode, Cybermen. And I started doing lists of all the things that I wanted and some of the things made them in and some of them didn’t.
[pullquote_left]We have a new costume. We have a new look. We have something much, much, much more dangerous.[/pullquote_left]I wanted the Cybermen to be much more silent than they actually are and the only noise we would ever hear from them was the point where they pump their chests and stuff like that, but I got so many of the things that I wanted and really I’m starting to feel like, okay, somebody else can now come along and take these Cybermen.
We have a new costume. We have a new look. We have something much, much, much more dangerous and the point where one of these things shows up again, I think people will be a lot more worried than they are currently about the old sort of Cybermen.
You’ve mentioned that you grew up watching Patrick Troughton. What did you enjoy most about that era of the program and his interpretation of the Doctor?
Well, I think the thing – you know, it would be hard to actually answer that completely rationally because you’re talking about the Doctor who was the Doctor for me between the ages of sort of age 6 and age 10. When did “The War Games” go out? Probably 9. I think 6 and 9. And that Doctor was – he was the Doctor for me. He was quirky, small, funny, slightly on the edge.
Everybody always underestimated him because he seemed to be a little bit goofy while the things he went up against were huge and terrifying and he would win somehow. And there was always a cost, and he didn’t always win cleanly. There was a weird feeling here that things were big and complicated and the Doctor didn’t really know it all but he was the Doctor who I would’ve wanted to go off in the TARDIS with.
[pullquote_right]And I wouldn’t really have wanted to go off with Jon Pertwee because I didn’t have a miniskirt.[/pullquote_right]I wouldn’t have wanted to go off with William Hartnell. He scared me. And I wouldn’t really have wanted to go off with Jon Pertwee because I didn’t have a miniskirt and I wasn’t old enough and I think you needed to be sort of, you know, somebody who could be pretty and ride around in an old car next to him in order to be a proper companion for him.
And by the time Tom Baker came along, I was just too old to fantasize about going off in the TARDIS with Tom Baker, although I think, you know, going off in the TARDIS with Tom Baker would be a wonderful, wonderful thing. So for me, it was always Patrick Troughton. He was the one that I wanted to travel with and I loved the feeling back then that events have consequences and that some of those consequences are going to be lethal.
Where do you draw the line for cybernetic augmentation? Would you ever wear Google Glasses or would you have an artificial heart or even eventually maybe artificial eyes?
Well, of course, the Cybermen started with Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis looking at things that were happening in terms of trends in the ‘60s and you were getting heart transplants that were on the way and you were getting people with things getting augmented and they did that wonderful classic science fictional thing of, well, if this goes on, where does it go?
Where does it take us? How many pieces can you replace in a person and still have them be a person. Would I wear Google Glasses? Almost definitely not, because they look very, very silly and I was there at TED, the TED talks last month and watched the nice Mr. Brin from Google get up there wearing his Google glasses and explain why being able to check your email while talking to people was the best thing in the whole world and I was not convinced.
[pullquote_left]Pretend I never said anything, definitely nothing about taking over the world by downloading my consciousness into every computer in the world.[/pullquote_left] I think trying to learn how to be present while you’re present is a really good thing to do. You know, I was talking to a friend yesterday who mentioned that, you know, when she had knee surgery, they basically replaced her entire knee with something artificial and that seemed terribly sensible to me.
I can absolutely imagine myself with a huge number of artificial bits. As long as I sound like me, I don’t think I’d mind. I’m ridiculously open-minded about this stuff. I kind of like the idea of downloading my entire consciousness into a computer and then invading every network in the world and then slowly taking – oh, I shouldn’t had said that, should I? Scrap that. Pretend I never said anything, definitely nothing about taking over the world by downloading my consciousness into every computer in the world.
The Neil Gaiman-penned Doctor Who episode, “Nightmare in Silver,” airs Saturday, May 11th at 8:00pm ET (5pm PT) on BBC America.