English science fiction and fantasy writer Neil Gaiman [pictured middle] is best known for his comic book series The Sandman and the novels Coraline and Stardust, which were subsequently turned into films. He has also penned American Gods, The Graveyard Book and Good Omens (with Terry Pratchett), among others. He's been making headlines lately for penning the fourth episode of the sixth series of Doctor Who, an outing tantalizingly titled "The Doctor's Wife." Director Toby Haynes [pictured right] has made Doctor Who history by being the first to direct three consecutive stories: the two-part Series Four finale "The Pandorica Opens"/"The Big Bang," Christmas special "A Christmas Carol," and the two-part Series Six opener "The Impossible Astronaut"/"Day of the Moon." Haynes also helmed the first two episodes of the BBC fantasy Being Human, and will direct an upcoming Sherlock adventure. Actor Mark Sheppard [pictured far left] has appeared in films including In the Name of the Father and Unstoppable, but he's best known for his television work, especially in genre series. Joss Whedon fans know him as Firefly's crime boss Badger and FBI agent Paul Ballard on Dollhouse, Supernatural fans know him as the demon Crowley, and Sheppard put in two seasons as shifty lawyer Romo Lampkin on Battlestar Galactica (other appearances include 24, Star Trek: Voyager, Monk, Chuck, Burn Notice, White Collar, Charmed, Medium and Bionic Woman). During the 2011 WonderCon at San Francisco's Moscone Center, I had just a bit of time—both backstage and during the panel moderated by Nerdist's Chris Hardwick—with what Sheppard called the "triad" representing Doctor Who, which addressed the topic of their respective histories with the show, as fans and as professional participants.
Toby Haynes: I just got a script through the door. You know, it's a no-brainer. It said "Doctor Who." And Steven Moffat. I'm like, "Wow, this is brilliant." And I was a huge fan when I was a kid, so it got me into TV and filmmaking anyway, so it was like there at the beginning of my career, I guess. And then, so, y'know, being asked to do the show was just like—it was a defining moment...We were doing a script meeting, and [Steven Moffat] was just going through his mail, and he was opening—I don't know if you've seen this thing called the Brilliant Book. When I was a kid, we used to get Doctor Who Annuals every Christmas. And this was the Brilliant Book, so this was the annual from the Matt Smith era. And so it's great sort of seeing him opening this, and I'm like really excited, looking at him [smiling, mouth agape]. I wasn't saying anything, and he was just "Oh, yeah, I've already got one of these. Do you want it?" And I'm like [goofily smiling and nodding]. So I got it like that and I looked at it, and I just went, "Will you sign it for me?" And he went, "So doing the finale of the series, the Christmas special, and opening the new series isn't enough. And you want me to sign your book for you?" [Laughs. Whimpering:] "Yeah..."
Mark Sheppard: They asked me. And just like Toby, I jumped thirty-five feet in the air and said, "Absolutely." And, I mean, it's the gig of a lifetime. I've always wanted to be on Who. And as I got a little bit further up in my career, I was, y'know, "Oh, maybe I'll get closer." And then Doctor Who just kept gettin' bigger and better [laughs] and bigger and better. And I was like "I'll never get a chance to do this. And when the call came, I was like "Oh, with bells on. I will be there in seconds..." And the experience of a lifetime. Incredible, incredible experience...
Toby Haynes: Oh, it was massive to me. Y'know, I'm dyslexic. And I didn't read. And I was really struggling at school. And the likelihood of me doing any reading off my own back was just not going to happen, until I picked up a Doctor Who book. And it had Tom Baker on the cover, it had some Daleks. Definitely the Daleks. And, y'know, I picked this book up, and it was the first book I read unassisted from beginning to end. And that was the beginning. So, suddenly—but the thing was, you see, then it meant that I had an excuse to buy more Doctor Who books, and my mum would sponsor it. And so I'd come to school, and I'd have this little stack of Doctor Who books. After a while, I stopped reading them and just collected the covers, y'know, 'cause I liked the covers. But I was obsessed about it, and I even had like—I was just thinking about it last night—I had a Dalek costume...well, it was from the '60s. I'd found it in an antique shop where I was growing up. And I did this little photoplay thing, where I painted a Dalek spaceship with me coming out of it in this Dalek costume and my brother shooting at me and I exterminated him. It was just very satisfying.
Mark Sheppard: You're giving the plot of the first episode now.
TH: [laughs] Obviously the effects will go slightly better. But, yeah, and then I used to make Fimo figures of all the bad guys and things like that. And then, you know, I kind of...as I sort of grew up, I sort of got more into film and TV and things like that, Doctor Who took a bit of a sideline thing. Until I started making the show, and suddenly I realized I had this huge resource of knowledge about the show and kind of about monsters and how to treat those monsters and what I loved about them and what I knew the fans would love about it...
Neil Gaiman: I saw my first episode of Doctor Who—I was three and a half. And it was William Hartnell. And he wasn't really my Doctor. I was sort of a bit scared of him. I was as much scared of him as I was of the monsters. But Patrick Troughton—by the time I was about six—was my Doctor. I loved him. But I watched Doctor Who back then whenever I could. And it was formative...Somebody said to me, "You always write about mythoses. And you know mythologies. And you write about mythologies. So is there a mythology in your show? And I'm saying, "Well, yeah, but before I discovered the Egyptian or the Greek or the Norse or the Aztec mythology, I knew what a Dalek was. I could tell you what the initials of the TARDIS stood for. Back then. [Pause.] Time And Relative Dimension in Space. You know, and I used to worry about red Daleks. 'Cause I had a copy of Dalek World, which is one of these glorious annuals...and it would talk in there, at one point, about how Daleks couldn't see the color red. And I worried, 'cause there were red Daleks. And I had this horrible vision of these Daleks going, "Oh my God, what was that? These bumps are just floating in the air." And, you know, this is the kind of stuff I'd think about when I was six or seven.
TH: But that's the good thing about Doctor Who: you can know more about it than your parents do.
Neil Gaiman: Absolutely!
TH: The only thing you know more about than your parents do when you're growing up. And you can tell them!
NG: I loved that. I loved the fact that I had this huge body of knowledge to draw on when I started writing my episode. But the other thing about writing Doctor Who is you're always absolutely aware that, on the one hand, you have forty-seven years worth of cool stuff to plunder, and on the other hand, somewhere in the universe there are lots and lots of really bright seven-year-olds, nine-year-olds, twenty-eight-year-olds and fifty-year-olds for whom this is going to be their first-ever episode. And you don't want to alienate them. You want to tell them the simplicity of the Doctor Who mythos. People are intimidated. They think that there’s forty-seven years worth of stuff they need to know before they can enjoy anything. And what you want to say to them is "No, look. There’s a blue box. It’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. It can go anywhere in time and space, sometimes even where it’s meant to go. And when it turns up, there’s a bloke in it called the Doctor. And there will be stuff wrong, and he will do his best to sort it out, and he will probably succeed 'cause he’s awesome. That’s all. Now sit down, shut up, and watch 'Blink...'"
Mark Sheppard: I remember seeing Troughton, but I remember really seeing Pertwee. And Tom Baker was my Doctor. I mean, that's what it was. That was the deal. That was a great era of Doctor Who, and it was something you sought out, and something you watched, and something you got to own. I remember—I loved the Daleks. I mean, I wanted to be a Dalek. I wanted to be Davros more than anything else...[to Haynes:] You were in that Dalek. [Mimes waving and smiling.] There's a photograph of him inside a Dalek—. [Mimes waving and smiling.]
TH: Trying to make a Dalek wave is quite difficult, by the way.
MS: And there's a prop man—
NG: I have never posted the photograph, on Twitter or on my blog, of me cuddling the Dalek, just hugging it...I've posted the photo of me with the Weeping Angel just behind me, but the photo of me locking this red Dalek in a giant hug is never—that one's just for me.
MS: You know the ones that scared the you-know-what out of me was always the Cybermen
NG: It was the silent Cybermen.
MS: Yes, the faceless—yeah, the original ones. I had a black-and-white TV at that time, and I just remember being absolutely terrified by them. And I think what is so fantastic about Russell's reincarnation of this and retooling of this, and now Steven's, is they preserved that one thing, which is to scare the living you-know-what out of us. I mean, and that is fantastic. All of these things that we've been talking about, the one common denominator is the stories are great. The storytelling is fantastic. And that resonates with us as fans. If it's done in a cheap and ungainly way, you know, in a very cynical way, without much love, we don't really like it; we don't really enjoy it. But when it's done with as much passion as Who, and it's done with as much passion as those other shows that we love so much, which will remain nameless, we can sense it, and we latch onto it, and we love every minute of it. I mean, Who is literally a work of love. 'Cause it ain't a work of money. It never was. It's a work of love and passion. And it shows. It really does show. And I gotta tell you, Matt Smith is my Doctor.
NG: And just to—let me throw something in on that. Matt is amazing. I got the right stuff for Matt, and he brought it in better and deeper, sometimes funnier, always odder than I ever had dreamed.
MS: I mean, to have Chris Eccleston to open that up, and then—fantastic! And David [Tennant] to bring something so special. Just brilliant. And then Matt to come in and be something even more different. It is such a hard thing to do, and yet I think he's fantastic. I think they're all fantastic...
Groucho: What was the easiest thing and what has been the most challenging thing about working on Doctor Who?
NG: The easiest thing about working on Doctor Who was the fact that they never tried to rein me in, at any point. I had this mad idea for a story and I phoned Steven Moffat and said, "This is the story," and he said, "Yeah! Great. Do it." And I said, "Do I have to write an outline or anything?" And he said, "No. Just write your episode." And I did. So the entire process was astonishingly easy. The hardest thing was writing an episode of Doctor Who, because I'd been spoiled over the years by comics, where anything you tell an artist to draw costs the same. And by prose, in which if you—there is no difference between a 300-page novel and a 314-page novel. With Doctor Who, we kept bumping up against the realities. I wrote this glorious scene where originally the episode actually started as if you were in the middle of another episode. And the Doctor and Amy are off having an adventure, and they've been captured. And it was—and I loved the idea of writing a sort of essentially Simpsons-style beginning, where you think you're going off in one direction and it goes off in another. And the scene was there at the read-through, and they made the costumes for it and everything. And then we got to essentially first day of shooting, and we realized that it was going to be a fifteen-day shoot unless we lost that scene, and they only had fourteen days to shoot it in. So that scene got lost and replaced by a scene in the TARDIS. Which—and that was really frustrating. And it was really frustrating and heartbreaking and so on and so forth at the time. Except that when we actually wound up cutting the episode together, the scene that kicks it off probably lasts a grand total of thirty seconds. And you're into the next scene. So honestly we wouldn't really have—you know, we would have wound up having to cut that scene to the point where it didn't work. I'm babbling. It's—the easy thing was the fact they gave me my head. The hardest thing was just making it work within the constraints of making television.
TH: Yeah. I think the—I would agree with that. No, I think for me the easiest thing is being able to turn the camera on any one of our--the fantastic actors that we have on the show. You know, you turn a camera onto Matt, and he just looks fantastic, and he makes the craziest things work. Karen is beautiful. Arthur is one of my heroes.
NG: Karen's legs are impossible! Because televisions have this problem, which is they're like that (gestures horizontally); they're not like that (gestures vertically)—
TH: It's great for us.
NG: You never get the full effect of Karen's legs. If they just turned televisions on their side...I'm convinced they're prosthetic. Nobody can have them.
MS: I've seen her run in them.
TH: She can run well, doesn't she?
MS: She does run verrry, very well.
TH: And so the actors, that's probably the easiest thing. The hardest thing, I think there's a moment in the pre-production sort of schedule that we have what I call the "dream-killer meeting." 'Cause you get these fantastic scripts. You sign on for it 'cause you go, "Wow, we're gonna go to a different planet. We're going to deal with these aliens, whatever. This is going to be fantastic. You go to the meeting where all the kind of realities of production are just plomped in front of you as a director, and they just go, "Okay, so this and this, this, this and this: how you going to deal with that?" And you're just sitting there going, "Oh, I thought we could--can we not afford this?!" So, but that actually sort of sets up the kind of—the kind of greatest thing about making this show is that you do have these sort of technical challenges. You know that if you can't match up to them with your creativity, they won't exist in the episode. As a fan, you want them in the episode, so it forces you to be clever. It challenges you. And, you know, you're more satisfied with your work in the end of it, because you've been pushed.
MS: It's funny, if you think of the triad you're talking about: the writer and instigator, you're talking about the director and the realisator, and you're talking about the performer, it's a very interesting journey. And, for me, if we're going along that same tack, the easiest thing for me is the love and the passion and the fact that everybody there wants to make something fantastic by the time it gets to me. And the hardest thing is not everything we want can be there. Not every scene we shot is going to be in what we do. But it's—and to sum that up perfectly is this: I come from live music and live theatre. And the connection between me and you—the connection between us—is the most fantastic thing, in a live scenario. And, in television, we're making something for you, for us, for all of us, that we don't quite know what the response is. Until we get to come to a place like this. That's why I think—Toby's a little bit newer to this than the rest of us, but I can certainly say for Neil and myself, this is such a joy, to meet you guys and share with you our love of it, your love of it. And it completes the whole thing: from concept to realisation to performance to enjoyment. It's fantastic. It's an honor and a joy...
Groucho: So I read you were called in to do this very much at the last minute: is that true?
MS: Very much at the last minute? No. I wasn't called in at the last minute. What happened was I had a scheduling conflict with Supernatural. What happened was everything was set to go, and Supernatural had come up, and they kind of had dibs on me. And the brilliant first AD and producers at Doctor Who suddenly turned around and went, "But are you working now?" And I went, "No. I'm not working for about ten days." And they went, "Can you come tomorrow?" And that was the speed thing. So I wasn't a last-minute replacement or a fix in any way—it was always mine—but it was a little scheduling issue, so they were brilliant enough to make it happen. So I flew backwards and forwards a few times.
G: Can you let slip anything about your character?
MS: That would be unprofessional of me to let slip anything!
G: Or just tell us.
MS: You'll have to wait and see...
G: Can you talk about what colors this part allowed you to play, or a little bit of the dynamic you get to have with the Doctor?
MS: Have you seen the trailers?
MS: Good, aren't they?
G: Very good. [Laughs.] You really won't say anything!
MS: I can, but if—look, I mean, my position in genre now is that I have to take my name off the credits of shows. Because I don't want to spoil it. You know, I kept Battlestar a secret for six months. Y'know, it's amazing. I love the shows, I love the fans: I'm a fan. And the last thing I want to do is tell you something...
G: I don't want spoilers...
MS: Look, it's Steven Moffat. It's brilliant. It's two episodes. It's—[pause] huge chunk of it shot in America. the scope is massive compared to last season's stuff, and the seasons before. The baddies are terrifying. Terrifying. It's a scary, scary, scary season. The writing's the same: fantastic. The performances: fantastic. The experience was magic. I got to do things that I dreamed of doing when I was little. That's the best way I can tell you. And I just think it's a hell of a ride. And we're gonna really love it.
G: And your father [W. Morgan Sheppard] plays a version of you, doesn't he?
MS: Does he?