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All aboard the No 200 bus

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How do you transport a Time Lord, a double decker bus, cast and 30 crew from Cardiff to the Dubai desert? Abbie Wightwick talks time travel of a different sort to the people behind tonight's 200th Doctor Who story, Planet of the Dead

IT'S fine for Doctor Who. He hops into his Tardis and turns up in new locations without having to consider travel plans or cost.

But for the creators of the BBC's cult science fiction series, it's another matter.

Tonight's Easter special, Planet of the Dead, involved transporting the Time Lord, a bus and 30 crew more than 3,000 miles from its production base in Cardiff to Dubai.

The team arrived safely but the 9.5 tonne bus was damaged on arrival when a container at Dubai City port was accidentally dropped on it.

No one was hurt but scriptwriters Russell T Davies and Gareth Roberts had to quickly think how they'd write the dent on the roof into the plot.

This wasn't too hard. After all, wear and tear can be expected voyaging through the universe. Right? Fortunately, the bus accident was the only major hitch in the special, which creators started work on last year.

As the writers scribbled away back home, producers were checking out locations in Morocco and Tunisia before settling on the desert kingdom of Dubai in the Persian Gulf.

The London bus, on which Doctor Who (David Tennant) and the mysterious Lady Christina de Souza (Michelle Ryan) begin their trip to an alien world, was shipped out last December, two months ahead of filming.

The cast flew out last month for a three-day shoot in blazing temperatures and blinding sandstorms.

Director James Strong, who successfully took the Daleks to Manhattan, said Dubai was a step further than New York.

Fact merged with fiction as cast and crew set off on a journey into the unknown - if not to another planet then at least to terrain that felt like it.

"It was a bit of a journey into the unknown," James, 37, concedes. "The first day was a bit of a challenge.

"We didn't have the back-up we have at home and Doctor Who is a big show." Director James had the daunting task of getting the best shots in the can but at the same time had to keep an eye on the day-to-day organisation and making sure everyone was happy.

He has worked on Doctor Who for three years on and off since it was re-launched in 2005 and says it's a tough job, but one he relishes..

"We looked at all sorts of places to film the special, but Morocco can be dodgy weather-wise at this time of year and Dubai was cost effective," he says.

Producer Tracie Simpson and the team found a stretch of desert known as 'Margham' which she says was perfect for the storyline and couldn't have been found anywhere else.

Another attraction was Dubai's thriving film industry. The Doctor Who team was able to hire local crew and special equipment that is used to the weather conditions, vital in such an extreme environment.

Equipment had to be up to the task and choosing a place where they could hire it meant cutting the cost of flying out masses of crew and specialist kit.

Crucially, cast and crew could also stay in a hotel just 30 minutes' drive from the remote desert location. Timing was tight and they didn't have hours to spare commuting to and from the sand.

"We filmed for only three days in Dubai. In television drama terms that's incredibly quick," James explains..

As the plane took off he felt nerves and excitement in equal measure.

"We had a reduced crew but there were still 30 or 40 people. No one got ill, luckily.

"Going out on a plane with your colleagues you feel excitement tinged with concern. You want to get it right.

It was tough and it was hard work but I think we got it right." He and Tracie say Doctor Who fans are in for a treat but those who have never seen the show before will also be able to follow the action as Planet of the Dead stands alone as a single adventure film.

It opens with the Doctor and Lady Christina de Souza, pictured, on a bus which takes a detour to a threatening alien land where untold horrors lurk beneath the sand.

A new monster, the fearsome half-fly/half-man Tritovore, makes its first appearance with creators hoping it will become as iconic as Daleks and Cybermen.

James can't give too much away but reveals the Doctor encounters "something not quite right on the planet".

He adds that the special has "a different kind of danger and excitement" as something nasty emerges from the sand.

The sand also held some real-life surprises for cast and crew.

On the first day's filming an unexpectedly fierce and blinding sandstorm blew up around them.

Using the natural environment rather than studio sets means things can change and the storm whipped up a frenzy to rival something the Doctor might meet on his intergalactic travels.

This was good for effects but at times meant shots had to be re-done as visibility plummeted..

Keeping your artistic integrity whilst slapping on factor 50 suncream and being blinded by sand must have its challenges.

James agrees that directing Doctor Who means multi-tasking in the strangest of circumstances.

"As the director you can't be immune to organisation. You have to ask if it's going OK.

"But my job is to try to produce the artistic vision of the thing.

"You're spending all this money and it's got to look amazing.

"It's my job to make sure we get the shots we need and justify the expense." Television licence payers would no doubt be delighted, but neither James nor Tracie, who is responsible for the budget, will divulge just how much it cost to make the special.

But both promise it will be worth every penny, saying it can be enjoyed equally as an adventure, romance and classic Doctor Who episode.

"It's a good old-fashioned adventure," James adds.

"You can watch it and understand it even if you've never watched the series.

It's a big action adventure for all the family." David Tennant fans can only see him in the four specials going out this year before he hands over his mantel to the 11th Doctor Who, Matt Smith, 26, in 2010.

But James says she'll miss David both as character and colleague.

"David is fantastic. It was great to have him back from playing Hamlet (with the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford).

"He was dying to get back to Doctor Who.

"He's one of the best actors in the world and a joy to work with. He's the definitive Doctor Who." James also enjoyed working with Michelle Ryan, known best for her role as Zoe Slater in EastEnders and who also appeared in Merlin and the US re-make of Bionic Woman.

"It's a departure forMichelle," he says.

"She plays a Lady which is something she's not done before. She's brilliant and there's a good spark between her and David. It's a romantic storyline in an old-fashioned Cary Grant/Katherine-Hepburn sort of way." Michelle, 24, has been tipped to be the Doctor's new assistant, but James suggests she won't. "I don't know if she'll be the new assistant. But I don't think so. I'd say this is a one-off," he lets slip. Also on set was comedian Lee Evans. Directing someone known for their biting wit might have been daunting but James says Lee makes the part of an evil scientist his own. Looking across the windswept desert shouting "action!" as David gets into character facing a deadly swarm must be the stuff sci-fi dreams are made of. For Bristol-born James it's the culmination of years of work directing for the BBC, Granada Television and others. He got to know Doctor Who executive producer Julie Gardner when he worked with her on Rocket Man with actor Robson Green and knew the show's writer Russell T Davies from their time together at Granada Television. "As a director you go up for lots of things. Some you get, some you don't. They look at something in your personality and your work that's right," James explains.

"It's about delivering and then you get asked back," he adds, making it sound easier than it can surely be. He thinks he benefited from "not being a dyed in the wool Doctor Who fan". This meant he approached the show with no preconceived ideas. As someone who watched the series as a child, when the scarf-wearing Tom Baker was in the role, James had an affection, but not an obsession with the series. "It's a different show now and I came to it fresh," he says. Gareth Roberts, who co-wrote tonight's special with outgoing executive producer Russell T Davies, spent months writing the script and then tweaking it. Gareth, 40, who has penned previous episodes including one where the Timelord met Shakespeare and Agatha Christie, says writers have to think of cost and technical implications before letting their imaginations run wild. He likes nothing better than thinking up diabolical new monsters but talks with the special effects people before he gets too carried away. "We spend time hatching ideas.

We wanted Planet of the Dead to be quite a positive story because we've had a few dark stories and we're coming up to some more," he explains. Gareth, whose father comes from Aberdare, grew up in London and visited Wales often as a child. He considers himself "half and half" and knows Cardiff, where some of the filming for this and other Doctor Who episodes were filmed, well. "There's no lack of drama or excitement in Planet of the Dead but it's got a more upbeat feel. We wanted a big blast, Hollywood movie feel," he reveals. Being a storyteller means he can't resist divulging the special is about two people "perfect for each other" who get thrown together unexpectedly and face not just Tritovores but also "a deadly Swarm". "There are two new monsters in the story. The Tritovore and the Swarm. They are disgusting," Gareth says. "As we discussed the story it came out that there needed to be something threatening the planet. We're always thinking of creating a new monster for the Doctor." At the start of writing Gareth and Russell bounce ideas around. Sometimes Russell just emails an idea to Gareth. Before The Shakespeare Code episode was written Russell simply sent him one word - and that was "Shakespeare".

They write alone, together and at meetings with others. Sometimes Gareth "writes alone going bonkers" and sometimes he takes his laptop to work in cafes and pubs near his London home. It took a month to complete the first draft of Planet of the Dead and then they took it to the first of a raft of huge meetings for tweaking. These meetings, known in the industry as "tone meetings", involve painstakingly going through the script line by line with dozens of people. "It's incredibly hard work writing Doctor Who because it's a barking mad programme," Gareth confides. "It doesn't obey any rules of television writing. It was created in a different age when people had a different way of watching TV. "If you said now that you wanted a series set in a different place every week it wouldn't happen. But Doctor Who is such a tradition it works." Another rule that the writers break is explaining clearly what's happening. Gareth explains. that this is forbidden in current television writing terms. "It really helps to know what's going on. You can't be too subtle on Doctor Who .

In terms of the main story we can be subtle in details like people's relationships but not in plot. "Often the characters don't know what's going on and the Doctor explains. There's a danger with science fiction that people don't know the conventions and how it works. We really spell things out and make clear what's happening." Gareth speaks highly of Russell and says there are rarely, if ever, artistic differences in the team. "We all get on sickeningly well. Russell is a genius. He gets it right 99% of the time, if not 100%. He has such a long career and knows television so well that when he gives a tip you know it will be right." Despite the practical issues, they knew this special would involve filming on location abroad. Gareth was aware of the cost involved and ensured he kept the desert scenes to 14 pages of the script. "You have to think of technicalities when writing.

You have to think what shots can be done in the studio and added on." Neither he nor Russell counted on the bus getting damaged en route. "A container dropped on the bus in port. It was almost a happy accident. No one was hurt and it could easily be written into the story," Gareth says. "Russell got a picture of the bus and we had a horrified laugh." Later Russell contacted Gareth saying it would be fine as the dent could be explained away by the traumatic voyage through space. Gareth didn't go to Dubai himself and rarely visits sets because they make him feel "like a lemon waiting for the squeezer".

But he says the scripts always feel like his own, even when actors have them in their hands. "You do see it as your own script but all television is a massive team effort. "You do quite a lot of writing on your own but you have meetings with other people, which is what I like about it." Gareth ensured he got plenty of news back from Dubai and says everyone was impressed by Michelle doing her own stunts. "She really can do the stunts. She's incredible. She did some flying with Kirby wires. It was a punishing day apparently." Producer Tracie, who took Doctor Who to Pompeii in an earlier incarnation, says it was hard work in Dubai but no-one was daunted by the task. "The weatherwas a concern but we didn't stop filming, even in the sandstorm. It was very dramatic but the crew were brilliant and we plodded on.

It's a 24-hour job." Tracie, 45, from Penarth, has been with Doctor Who since its 2005 re-launch. She says working on the show has been the best time of her life. "I'm so lucky working with people like Russell (T Davies) and Julie (Gardner). "I look after the show for them doing the day-to-day running of things and the budget. You have to be a good manager and good at accounts." It's also her job to smooth any troubled waters, although she says this rarely occurs. She credits the good atmosphere on set to actors and crew saying there are no prima donnas. Out in the desert people could have heated up emotionally but didn't .

"The to this is David Tennant," Tracie says. "He is lovely to work with and the cast follow his lead. The feel of a show depends on what the lead character is like." Comic Lee Evans, a Doctor Who fan, kept thanking everyone for letting him be part of the show and was "lovely", she says. Michelle was "down to earth", and nobody lost their sense of humour despite the heat, dust and lack of posh hotels, she adds. The crew didn't stay in glamorous hotels in Dubai City either. Instead they went to an "economical, clean" hotel close to the desert. Despite this remote location they were sniffed out by die-hard fans. One day Tracie was astonished to see a 4X4 vehicle pull up and a family pile out to start a picnic on the sand. "I was setting out the tent for the caterers when I saw them. I thought it was a weird place for a picnic and then I saw a big sign in the car window saying 'I love Doctor Who'! "It was bizarre to find that in the middle of the desert." The fans were a family of Americans living in Dubai delighted their favourite FEATURE show was filming nearby. They were disappointed that David Tennant wasn't on set at the time. Instead Tracie chatted to them and sent goody bags, part of the job she feels is important.

Despite its out-of-this-world storylines, perhaps it's the down-to-earth feel of Doctor Who's creators and cast that appeals so much to viewers. The show feels accessible on and off screen. David Tennant can be seen happily signing autographs when filming in Cardiff and the desert fans must have guessed they wouldn't be shooed away. After 25 years in television, Tracie says she's still excited by making one of the UK's most iconic television shows. Doctor Who draws around six million viewers per episode and is also known and loved by people of all generations. But, with The Timelord having what amounts to a year off this year - there are four specials rather than a series - what does the future hold? "I would like to carry on but my lips are sealed on pain of death," Gareth jokes. Having resurrected Doctor Who so successfully the team's job is to keep re-inventing the show for new audiences. Let's hope this won't be too hard, even with Tritovores breathing down their necks. Luckily, the Doctor is a master of regeneration... Doctor Who: Planet of the Dead is on tonight at 6.45pm on BBC One Wales.

GRAPHIC: Director James Strong The Tritovore, right, and the Swarm, top left, are Doctor Who's latest enemies On location with the Doctor Who Easter special Michelle Ryan plays action woman Lady Christina de Souza with Lee Evans, right, taking on the role of an evil scientist

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  • APA 6th ed.: Wightwick, Abbie (2009-04-11). All aboard the No 200 bus. The Western Mail p. 4.
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