Amid press junkets with featuring Jodie Whittaker, Mandip Gill, Tosin Cole, Bradley Walsh, and (showrunner) Chris Chibnall, it’s quite rare to hear from Doctor Who producers, so this interview with Matt Strevens comes as a special treat as we look forward to the rest of Series 12.
Strevens has worked on the show since Chibnall took the helm for Series 11, but previously worked on 50th anniversary docu-drama, An Adventure in Space and Time.
Here, Matt takes us behind-the-scenes, going into how things have changed and what’s stayed the same for this production team’s second year on the show; keeping it fresh; and what scary monsters we have in store…
How do you feel going into your second year?
There’s a huge sense of excitement but also continued sense of wanting to take the show further and raise the bar again. There’s a creative thrill in what we managed to achieve with our first series in terms of launching Jodie and putting our own stamp on the look of the show, the production values and stories we wanted to tell but you’ve always got somewhere new you want to take it, a feeling of having to follow that, and how do you keep moving the show forward? How do you take it to new levels? How do you continue to make it fresh for the audience? And how do you make it fresh for yourself and the production and creative team?
Have you approached anything differently this year?
Obviously we learnt a lot during the making of our first series. How long things take, what the production can do, where we can push it a little bit more, so you take on a lot of new learnings. In terms of approaching things differently, I think always in terms of the storytelling: What was the first year about, what did we need to do? Introduce this fabulous Doctor and her friends and also wanting to give people as much variety in terms of story, tone and setting, so we felt the best way to do that was telling a story of the week that could encompass the classic territory of Doctor Who – so historical episodes, contemporary Earth stories, sci-fi heavy episodes set on alien planets or on alien ships etc.
We still want to retain that; we still love the idea of stories of the week and getting as many adventures in but you’re also looking for ways to move that forward and build on it. What do we want to do with the friends andthe Doctor? How does their story evolve? So in terms of storytelling, we’ve looked to build on what we learned last year, and take it to new levels and get to know our gang even better and our Doctor even better. In terms of production values, again you keep on evolving. Other shows don’t stand still and they keep moving forward. And even in the very short amount of time we’ve been off air everything changes and production values get better and more sophisticated. So it’s constantly looking at how do we move things forward, not getting complacent or just doing more of the same.
What is going to be different for the Doctor and her friends this year?
I think this year they all know each other a whole lot more. The friends really relied on the Doctor in the first year but towards the end of the last series they started taking more control. They started being a lot more proactive and I think that just continues and builds this series, they’re very much more self-sufficient. They rely on each other. They’ve learned from the Doctor so they learn how to question things in the way the Doctor questions things. They’re a lot more interrogative and a lot more questioning. They’re the heroes of their stories.
The Doctor is facing more challenges. There are questions for her. I think she is going to need the gang a lot more. So she’s going to rely on them a lot more. Also, they’re over the initial kind of complete discombobulation and amazement of being in this space and time machine with this amazing alien, it’s settled a bit for them. And although every week is a new surprise, it’s still a completely surreal adventure; they are starting to ask questions about their adventures now. They’re starting to ask questions about the Doctor and what makes her tick and who she is.
There’s going to be some amazing guest stars. Focusing on the first episode [Spyfall, which starred Lenny Henry and Stephen Fry], what can you tell us about this? How did this all come about?
The way it works is Chris writes the script first. We had two very important parts so right from the start, we said let’s do our wish list. It’s the first episode back; it’s also the first episode of the series. We want a real treat for the audience. Let’s just completely punch as high as we can punch. And obviously Lenny is somebody that we greatly admire and Chris’s worked with him before. So he’s always been in our mind and we always knew we wanted to work with Lenny. And Stephen is on every list you put together. He’s a national treasure, we adore him so we went to them first and we’re very lucky that we got our first choices for those roles, especially as they are both fantastically busy all the time.
We’ve heard there are some scary monsters this year. What’s the process of creating these?
I think they are really scary! What you work with is, you go back and you remember classic episodes of Doctor Who and think about what really works, what really scares us, what can we do within the framework? How scary can we be? It’s a family show but what you realise is that the show’s always pushed the boundaries on that. And it has been incredibly scary, and people love to be scared. We created a lot of new monsters and threats last year, and this year we’ve got even more.
It always starts with the script and then the writer of that episode has an idea of the monster, and then we really interrogate it. There’s nothing harder for the design team, when you’ve got something that’s incredibly nebulous, and you don’t know really what it is. So we always encourage the writers, and Chris is very good at this, to really pin down what this monster needs to feel like. Then you open up it to the creative team and the designers, the creature designer, the costume designer Ray Holman, whether it’s the prosthetics team or whether it’s special makeup with Claire Pritchard, you look for inspiration and sometimes they’ll take it in a different direction to what was written and it’s a discussion such as: “But how about if we added this or how about if it was more like this?” Then we all get excited by each other’s ideas and as we get concepts in, that’s when you really start to hone the process down. But we’ve got some real behind the sofa moments this year.
Is there a particular moment from the upcoming series that you’re really excited for viewers to see? Was there a moment when you read a script where you had an idea and you thought, I can’t wait for viewers to see this?
There are lots of different moments. I think I’m really genuinely excited about our first episode. I think it’s huge. I think we really wanted to push the boundaries of what we could do and give the audience a real treat. They haven’t seen the Doctor and the gang for a year so we really wanted to bring it back with a bang and I think we’ve done that. What’s been really exciting is this whole series feels like we’ve constantly kept pushing and pushing and pushing! There were loads of lovely surprises and again, each episode feels very, very different; from the locations and the settings and designs and score of every episode. Everything does feel incredibly special and bespoke so that’s really exciting.
For a show that has been going for so long, how do you make it feel so fresh and exciting and like a brand new series every year?
That was bequeathed to us in terms of the format of the show. The great thing about the show is that it has an inbuilt renewal and although the show has been going for a very long time, the basic premise of the show is still exactly the same as it was back in 1963. You can bring in a whole new raft of characters and a new actor playing the Doctor and then what you constantly have each year is new things at your disposal, new technological advances, new ways of doing things, going to different locations and everything else. It has that ability to constantly change itself up.
So you keep it fresh by doing the things that are basic to every great drama, which is it’s all about the story. The story always hinges on the characters and so if you’ve got a great central character, great core characters, and great guest characters it just keeps an inbuilt freshness. And that is what we strive to do all the time. We have a great core cast, we have a great Doctor, so let’s build on last year, let’s have really, really great guest characters that are fully rounded, that you can fall in love with or hate or whatever but just have some really great parts there as well. I think that helps to keep it fresh.
What does Doctor Who mean to you?
Doctor Who means a lot of things to me. I watched it growing up so in some ways, one is slightly in awe of it, you feel like you’re carrying a glass vase across a very shiny floor you just want to preserve this national treasure. On the other hand, it represents just the most amazing challenge to me in a really great way. It is a real privilege and it’s incredibly exciting and it’s kind of like wish fulfilment. It’s like getting a ticket into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. That’s what it means to me.
How would you describe Series 12 in three words?
Exhilarating. Funny. Climactic.
For those who didn’t watch the show last year, why should they watch this year?
Well, what’s really lovely about this year is that if you come in on the first episode, it’s very clear who our characters are and who our Doctor is, and what the world is. So still I would say, you don’t need any prior knowledge of the show to come and enjoy Series 12 and if you stick with this series there are lots of lovely things that happen and develop throughout the series. If this is your first episode, it’s a great series to come in on, you won’t be disappointed. You’ll fall in love with everybody and it will take you on a journey.
Doctor Who Series 12 continues this Sunday with Orphan 55.