Doctor Who Premieres On NYC Stage
Last Saturday was a busy day if you were a Doctor Who fan in New York City. The first episode of the new series, Asylum of the Daleks, had its US premiere at the Ziegfeld Theater, the largest single-screen theater in the city they could lay their hands on. After a minor frenzy to obtain tickets, fans were treated to an hour-long thrill ride as The Doctor and his friends Amy and Rory fought against more Daleks than you could shake an eye-stalk at. But the activity began earlier in the day, as the folks at BBC America made stars Matt Smith and Karen Gillan, as well as co-producer Caroline Skinner available for interviews to the appreciative hordes of the working press.
Matt Smith (The Doctor) is currently shooting the Christmas special (“Which you have to shoot in August, because what could be more silly” explained Caro Skinner) and arranged a break in his schedule so he could fly to New York specifically to attend the premiere. “I want to film every single episode in New York, I want to get that out there right now. I absolutely love this place. Any way you point a camera, there’s something wonderful and beautiful to look at. The Light here sort of falls between the grids of the buildings so wonderfully. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’d like to come live here one day. And it’s great to do a sort of periody piece here – the locations afford you so much.”
In the aforementioned special, “[The Doctor] meets his new chum…or someone he thinks is his new chum”, played by newcomer to the series, Jenna-Louise Coleman. When asked about how The Doctor acts when he hasn’t got a companion, Matt admits he’s “really interested by the time he spends on his own. I think he gets more dangerous when he’s on his own. I think he needs that sort of human moral compass, that human sensibility. He needs that, he doesn’t have the same grasp of it. It’s interesting to think about the character becoming more reclusive, and on his own. Just this old man, wandering around the universe, trying to put things right…killing loads of innocent people along the way. when you look at it, there’s a lot of clerics that die in certain episodes.”
This season of thirteen regular episodes is broken into a short set of five, the final eight coming in 2013, after the Christmas special. The only “arc” in this five is what matt calls “The fall of the Ponds”. “We start off exactly where we left him,” Matt explains, “a man who is trying to step back a bit, into the shadows, and be less prominent, less famous, less apparent, less destructive. less of all those things that he started to struggle with. We see him trying to deal with that, as a character, or personality trait, it’s absolutely something he’s trying to deal with. Perhaps it does make his soul a bit darker, because he’s alone a lot more. As Amy says, it’s unhealthy for him, I think, ultimately, to be alone too long.”
When discussing the new episode, everyone has said the Daleks are “scary again”. “We’ve got the design of them better,” says Matt. “We’ve drawn from every Dalek, every one ever on its…well, you can’t say ‘legs’, can you? On their…space wheels. And The Asylum, you’ll see tonight, it’s…Dalek-Land. Like a perfect theme park – everything’s made for Daleks, it’s sort of ridiculous. The doors all go like that (makes a triangle shape with his hands) cause they’re all fat at the bottom. The world is really sort of gruesome and frightening. The design, and the tone, and the way it’s lit, I think we’ve achieved our intention with their nature.”
Karen Gillan (Amy Pond Williams) admitted something fairly major – “I’ve never found the Daleks…all that scary. I’ve loved them, cause they’re so iconic. But in this episode, they’re properly frightening.
I wondered if this “asylum” was more in the sense of a place where you keep mad people, of a place where dangerous people beg to be kept safe. Matt surmised, “I think it is [the first], but I rather like the idea of Daleks SO mad, they’re asking, ‘don’t let me out’. If they had more of a human consciousness, the latter could apply, but the Daleks don’t have that, it’s just not there. It’s just alien evil, encased in a tank. That’s why The Doctor has had this life-long war, that’s why they are his greatest foe, there’s nothing redemptive about them. They are only evil, and that’s the way he sees them; only evil.”
“This is an interesting episode for the nature of the Daleks”, Matt thinks. “We learn a lot, Steven cleverly reveals. As I think you have to with any villain that comes back. They have to have moved on somehow. And I think Steven’s done that here, he’s explored their nature in a very interesting way.”
The recurring theme of meeting historical figures will come round again, in an odd way. “In episode four, we encounter someone’s feet. He was a king, and he’s chasing us…and I’m not gonna give anything else away.” When asked what figure he might like to see appear, Matt was introspective. “Was Tarzan real? He wasn’t real was he? I kind of like the idea of The Doctor swinging from the branches, but being really bad at it.”
Gillan had a rather definite opinion about her character, specifically about the possibility of a return after this season’s assuredly dramatic departure. “I’ve always said that when I go, I want it to be for good. Because I want that final scene to have that same impact, maybe ten years on. I want people to be able to revisit it and still have the same emotion. That’s really important for me, so for that reason, I think I’m going to rule out any returns.” However, when I quietly complimented her on her ability to lie, she replied, “I learned it from the best!”
This season will start with a five-part webisode prequel, Pond Life, which will be made available on the BBC’s You Tube channel. “That was really interesting,” Karen recalls. “Cause you never get to see the snippets in between their adventures with The Doctor. And that’s what Pond Life is all about. And the in episode four (The Power of Three) that’s what the whole episode is about – these two people trying to deal with their domestic life, with this time-traveler popping in and out of their lives, whisking them off into these crazy adventures.”
“Steven (Moffat) and I wanted to do a fairly substantial piece about the Ponds and their relationship with The Doctor,” explained Executive producer Caroline Skinner, “kind of in general, and in between series six and seven. And one of the exciting thing about this series of episodes is you’ve got Amy and Rory as a married couple, and The Doctor popping in and out of their life, and taking them on adventures, and then dropping them off again. And we wanted something to set up that context, and really let people get an emotional sense of their relationship. And to see what The Doctor popping in and out meant from their point of view. You’ve got him coming in like that crazy little child, and throwing everything up in the air.”
“We were working at the time with brilliant writer Chris Chibnall (writer of 42 and The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood for Who, and numerous episodes of Torchwood), and he’s just got the most beautiful way for writing for Amy and Rory, and we asked him to put pen to paper, and that’s what we got.”
In this, her first full season producing the show, Caro brings to the table “A huge amount of passion for [the series], I’ve always loved it, and massive enthusiasm and ambition to make this the biggest series ever. And so does Steven. I sat down on day minus-one, just before I got the job, and he pitched me what he wanted to do with the series. And miraculously, in fifteen minutes, he’d pitched me all 13 stories for each episode, and I was just sat there saying ‘Wow, that’s quite a lot.’ And it was just so exciting to hear, to be honest, and I just wanted to bring my enthusiasm to bear to make all those ideas come to life, in the most ambitious way that we could.”
While chatting, Karen shared a problem she had with the many deaths of Rory Williams: “Each time, I have to invent a sort of new ‘death reaction.’ What am I going to do now?” She didn’t have any such problems filming her final scenes. “It not even acting, it’s just real. And it was honestly, just one of the most powerful feelings, and I just related it to how I genuinely felt. [that scene] was fairly far along in the shooting, but our very last scene was kind of an insignificant one, just us getting into the TARDIS, going ‘bye!’ But it became significant, cause it was the last time were going into the TARDIS together. So Matt closed the door, and we were in total darkness, and we all had a massive hug in the dark. And I cried, and milked it for all it was worth. It was amazing.”
Of all the episodes she’s filmed, Karen still considered The Eleventh Hour to be her favorite. “There was a particular magic to that episode. We were introducing the characters and establishing their relationship for the first time, and it was all so exciting. Actually, my favorite scene doesn’t even involve me at all, it’s the fish/custard scene, with my little cousin (Caitlin Blackwood) and Matt.”
Karen’s met some very wonderful fans, but had a couple stories about a couple that…stuck in her mind. One was a fellow who had actually had his name changed to “River Song”, and dressed as her for the convention, and a second fellow from Australia who had customized his house to a Doctor Who theme – “He had a TARDIS elevator, the gates had the logo – it had to cost some money.”
All three of the guests agreed that filming in New York City was a wonderful experience. “We filmed in Central Park and had hundreds of fans,” Matt recalls, “following us. It was remarkable, like nothing I’d ever witnessed before.” Karen agreed – ” Just to contain the excitement of being in Central Park was a challenge. We didn’t have any sort of security, we didn’t think anything like [hundreds of fans] was going to happen. But what was really nice is everybody respected the shooting, they were really quiet, and the they said ‘Cut,’ and it was all ‘Sign my TARDIS!'” Caroline explained, “When we shoot in the UK, we’ll get quite a few people following us around, and the fan base absolutely adore the show. But in my career, I’ve never known anything…I don’t think anyone had prepared themselves for what shooting in New York would be like. Least of all, our producers here in New York, who had done various movies here, and they’re all saying, ‘Caro, I don’t mean to be funny, but you’ve got twice as many people as Julia Roberts here!’ Just a wonderful experience. We had maybe twenty, thirty people in central park in the morning, and the crowd just grew, and by the end, we were shooting at a big fountain, and we could hardly hold the people back. And the sheer love and passion for the show was in the air, and it made the entire experience so special.
Indeed, Caroline called Angels in Manhattan the most challenging episode of this front half of the season. “Challenging for Steven because he’s written the most beautiful and heartbreaking exit story and there are some scenes in there that just so absolutely emotional. It’s an enormous thing to change companions, and you absolutely have to get that story right. And at the same time, we wanted to make the New York setting as resonant as we possibly could, and really make it feel to every detail, that we’d set it over here. And we did, we came here. We worked incredibly hard to get to get out and about to every New York landmark that we could, but more so to create that sort of noirish atmosphere that shooting in this city is so famous for. To make the story feel as beautiful as it possibly could do.
As for next year, which will of course be 2013, the fiftieth anniversary year for the series. “All I can say at this point”, said Caroline, guardedly, “Is that next year i going to be the biggest year of Doctor Who, bar none. I spent a lot of my time in strange underground rooms, with senior people at the BBC, and talking about what we might do. And not just on television; but other things, cause obviously Doctor Who has a lot of live events. So there are many plans afoot, which are all wonderful, and are all absolutely top secret.”
Writing for science fiction is always a challenge, as eventually someone has to ask how much things will cost, and that’s ultimately Caroline’s job. “We are treated very nicely by the BBC, but it’s always, whatever show you do, however big of small the budget is, you always want more. The thing we do on Doctor Who, as much as we possibly can do, is to let writers write exactly what they want, and then try not to cut anything, What you tend to get, in a Doctor Who script, is if it doesn’t, in terms of the production challenges, within it, in terms of location, in terms of special effects, just sheer story-based ambition…if it doesn’t scare you, as well as the monsters, we’re none of us are working hard enough.”
Later that evening, Matt and Karen arrived at the Ziegfeld theater in twin DeLoreans, to the sound of the cheering crowds, and of reality folding in upon itself. The episode itself was met with delight by the audience, and as the trio were so earnest in their requests to keep it all a secret (especially the BIG where where…ok, sorry), well, who are we to refuse them. suffice to say we learn about a great deal more about how Daleks think, how they treat their failures, and what they see as beautiful. The question and answer session was filled with laughs as, among other things, we learned that Matt had to help Karen zip up her dress (“Twice!”), the cast think that Peter Sellers and Bill Nighy would make great Doctors, and in answer to a young girl who asked “Why does Amy always get in trouble?”, Karen simply answered “Well, she’s a risk-taker”. Matt shared a story about his Mum, who was with him at the premiere (and was received with great cheers). She’s quite the fan of the series herself, and when they were looking for the new Doctor, she sent him a text saying “You should be the new Doctor”, and he had already gotten cast, and couldn’t even tell her. So if he’s that good at keeping secrets, surely the 1,200 member of the audience can keep schtum for a week.
Asylum of the Daleks premieres September 1st at 9PM EDT on BBC America. Check you local listing, especially in HD as several major cable and satellite carries have recently added the BBC America HD channel to their lineups.