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Going for the Doctor

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The 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who will be a global event, simultaneously screened in 75 countries including Australia. Jacquelin Magnay goes behind the scenes to meet the creators and cast of the blockbuster production

ON the Cardiff set of Doctor Who there are several large and prominent notices warning everyone -- visitors and cast members alike -- that what is inside the white door beyond is TOP SECRET. There most definitely is to be no photography, no tweeting and no Facebooking.

For we are about to enter the mysterious labyrinth of Doctor Who and pre-empting any of the set design, character dialogue or plot development is EXPRESSLY FORBIDDEN. Just in case, I had signed four different sets of legal documents to be able to get to this point.

So tentatively, fearing a Zygon attack or exile to Skaro by a Dalek masquerading as one of the BBC's four full-time brand officers assigned to protect Doctor Who, I stepped into a domain that has been so otherworldly yet so enduring that it is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary. And what a world it is.

There is Matt Smith, the Doctor, in his bow tie and long coat and wearing an indistinguishable wig to cover his recently shaven pate, whispering words into the ear of writer and executive producer Steven Moffat, who laughs heartily. Behind them is a stagehand working swiftly to glue a distressed Cyberman head. Four of the evil Cybermen clunk around slowly, their plastic grey suits so stifling a minder accompanies them with a portable fan.

A huge red-carpeted catwalk that would not be out of place in the Milan fashion shows projects through the middle of the set with large Italianate frescoes surrounding it. Eight heavyweight but plastic machineguns lie neatly on the carpet -- but it is unclear if these are the weapon of choice for the goodies or the baddies.

In an adjoining second warehouse there are large wire cages filled with monsters of old, headless Weeping Angels, Daleks -- mainly shiny and bronzed, although one Dalek clearly has been dealt with already by the Doctor, all blackened and mangled, his inner wired gizzards indecently exposed.

Amid all this structured busy-ness are the costume lady, the make-up lady, the sound engineer, the cameramen and directors filling the vast space so that, despite being the size of two large warehouses, the environment is intimate, even claustrophobic.

And overshadowing it all, just to the rear, is the biggest prop of all, the one item that grown men replicate as garden sheds: the TARDIS.

This is the handy Time and Relative Dimension in Space machine that takes the Doctor through time and space. Its exterior is a low-cost blue police box that was commonly seen on the streets of London a half-century ago, but aside from being able to travel through time, its famous feature is that it transcends dimensional space and becomes much bigger on the inside.

In this particular filming space, which was built two years ago as the reinvigorated series gained even more popularity, the inside of the TARDIS is three stories high and is 360 degrees of spray-painted wood and iron, with all the buttons, knobs and red lights essential for time travel.

Using the police box as both the spacecraft and time prop was an Australian idea. James Anthony Coburn, formerly a journalist from Melbourne's The Argus, was working as a writer for the BBC when the Doctor Who series was being commissioned back in 1963, starring William Hartnell. It is believed that apart from writing the first Doctor Who episode, An Unearthly Child, from a script drafted by CE Bunny Webber -- another Australian -- Coburn also developed the idea of having the Doctor's travelling companion be a granddaughter.

Doctor Who, which launched the day after the assassination of John F. Kennedy -- and was repeated a week later be-cause of initial low ratings -- was supposed to be about time travel to various scientific and historical touchpoints, using the 1000-year-old Time Lord, the Doctor.

But very early on scriptwriters introduced the serial The Mutants where the Daleks and Thals suffered a neutron bomb attack. Verity Lambert, the producer at the time, has spoken about the sheer necessity to push the show along such extreme monster lines because no other script was available and there was a crisis of confidence.

"Had we had anything else ready we would have made that," she recalled of those early days, when the show was re-commissioned in 2005.

As the 50th anniversary episode is about to air in Australia early on the morning of November 24, it is timely to re-member that Australians had considerable influence on the beginnings of Doctor Who -- even though the first episode was not aired here until more than a year later on January 12, 1965, on ABW-2, the ABC's Perth station.

The eerie opening and closing music that has survived into its sixth decade was composed by Australian musician Ron Grainer, whose illuminating list of memorable themes belied his early life in country Queensland. Another Australian musician who composed for the forerunner of the Australian Ballet, Dudley Simpson, wrote the incidental music for 61 Doctor Who shows from 1965 to 1980.

Then there were the distinctive Australian vowels of the Doctor's 1980s companion Tegan, from Brisbane, played by Janet Fielding. Even one of the Doctor Who monsters has Australian tentacles: the wicked war criminal Magnus Greel in The Talons of Weng-Chiang was known as the Butcher of Brisbane for killing thousands of the city's citizens. So, as the show enters its sixth decade, surely there is a renewed place for some Australian input?

The creative genius behind Doctor Who after it was revived in 2005 following a 15-year break in production is Moffat, a self-confessed Whovian who self-deprecatingly casts himself in the "demented hardcore" group of the show's fans.

Moffat, who still writes for another BBC hit, Sherlock, took over from Russell T. Davies as executive producer of Doc-tor Who in 2010 and says of the Whovians: "We know everything about the show and we are cross about most of it. I am even cross about me."

Yet Australians might well be cross with Moffat, since he says Australia is too much like Britain and does not offer any original locations to uproot cast and crew for a Down Under shoot. For one whose imagination is populated all day with extraterrestrial monsters bringing untold menace, Moffat breezily discounts the beauty and distinctiveness of the Australian landscape. "It's quite far away, Australia, so we're pretty unlikely to shoot there," he says, before quickly adding, soothingly: "But we might."

He continues: "What would Australia give us? Money, obviously, and there are some great locations. I stayed for a while in Sydney and wrote Girl and a Fireplace there [a love story involving the Doctor and a woman who turns out to be Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of Louis XV].

"But house by house it looked terribly like Britain. I heard of a special authentic British pub and yet when I went there it was the only one that didn't look British.

"We love doing foreign locations but we have to get something there that we can't get anywhere else. When we went to America I was originally going to set the story in Florida, where the space program was, but Florida looked exactly like Cardiff and there wasn't any earthly point in going there so we had to go to the Valley of the Gods."

The huge population of the US is seen as the growth market for the show in the next decade rather Australia, which has had a devoted and niche fan base from the beginning. Such was its enduring impact in Australia, the ABC provided the funding for the 1983 anniversary special The Five Doctors and, along with networks in more than 75 other nations, the ABC will be simultaneously broadcasting the 50th anniversary show at the same time as its BBC airing in Britain.

"It will be weird for people in Australia watching in the morning and having celebrations and things early," Matt Smith, the 11th Doctor, tells Review. Smith was filming the final episode of his regeneration at the time, before passing the Doctor baton to Peter Capaldi.

With his coat off and braces hanging loosely, Smith was relaxed as he reflected on how the past couple of shows in his role as the Doctor have generated huge public interest: "Steven [Moffat] told me potentially the show was seen by 77 million people in the last year -- imagine if you do something and everyone in the world is watching it at the same time. That is so cool, having the different time zones."

Smith hints tantalisingly that the 50th anniversary show, titled The Day of the Doctor, has a singular resonance for everyone around the world, noting: "That's why it's a celebration." He adds: "For us who make it, we just turn up and make it as best we can and hope that you guys enjoy it. I try not to place importance on it because if you do, you treat it differently. So I treated it like any other scene. It was a real pleasure to make, and hopefully that translates on to the screen."

English-based Whovians have fond memories of Australia, given that bootlegged copies of the ABC's Doctor Who repeats found their way to England and gave the show's fans a reliable fix in between series. The BBC, which continues to air the show on Saturday evenings at 6.30pm, directly targeting the family market, used never to show repeats. The early timeslot also solidified a common phrase, "hiding behind the sofa", to identify a generation or two of British chil-dren who found the show's various villains too confronting and scary. It was a slightly different scenario in Australia, where there was greater emphasis on marketing the show to older teenage fans -- though it was popular with viewers of all ages. These black-market copies of Doctor Who are providing a bonanza for the commercial operations of BBC Worldwide as the BBC had destroyed the early tapes of the first two Doctors, played by Hartnell and Patrick Troughton. This month the BBC revealed 11 tapes, including nine previously lost copies, had been returned to the corporation from Nigeria. But there are still 27 Doctor Who stories that are missing or have incomplete episodes.

Notwithstanding the interest in the archival material, Moffat is promising a storyline for the 50th anniversary show that will appease diehard fans but also appeal to new or occasional viewers not familiar with the long-running mysteries underpinning many of the show's characters.

Moffat explains: "On a show like this we are addressing a huge mainstream audience, and so you have to get simultaneously lost and not lost in nostalgia. You have to celebrate it.

"On a production level it was colossal. It really is a movie done with all advantages television brings. It will knock your socks off, it is huge. Some of the effects and staging are remarkable, so it was as challenging as you can get. You are not allowed to be small with something like that."

Fans wanting to see as many of the Doctors together as in the 20th anniversary special may be disappointed. While the show's filming and script have been shrouded in secrecy it appears that -- in addition to the reappearance of two other Doctors -- the Queen, played by an actor, may make an entrance after filming took place in Wales as well as in Trafal-gar Square, near Buckingham Palace.

Jenna Coleman, who plays present companion Clara Oswald -- and was in a memorable scene earlier this year where the Doctor cried -- says the filming of the 50th anniversary show was "totally unique". She confirms that at least three Doctors, the mysterious version played by John Hurt as well as the established Matt Smith and David Tennant ones, will be appearing on The Day of the Doctor. Enigmatically, she adds: "You see, John and Matt and David working together was ... well, you'll see in the 50th when you see it. It isamazing how well they complement each other."

Tennant and former singer Billie Piper, who previously appeared as the popular companion Rose Tyler, and the aliens Zygons and Daleks will also appear in the special.

It is also safe to reveal that The Day of the Doctor will be focused on the Doctor rather than the familiar scenario where he arrives to solve someone else's problem.

While the diehards identify their favourite Doctors, unforgettable series or outstanding elements of the show, Moffat argues the most striking aspect is the universal awareness of Doctor Who.

Acknowledging how even people who claim never to have seen the show always seem to have an opinion about their favourite Doctor, he says: "Everybody, everybody watches Doctor Who, everybody is aware of it.

"I promise you that pressure is when absolutely no bastard watches your show at all. That's pressure, and worrying.

"Doctor Who is joyous, it lights people's faces up, particularly kids. That's brilliant. They name all their favourite monsters, including the monster they created, and that's their absolute favourite, which is quite right."

The arrival of Hurt, as a previously unknown Doctor first revealed in the series seven finale and rumoured to be a "dark Doctor" from the period between the Doctor's eighth and ninth reincarnations, has added enormous confusion to one of the show's facts: that the Doctor has 12 regenerations. So is the regeneration of the Doctor from Smith to Capaldi in the Christmas special show the last regeneration, given the uncertainties around the John Hurt Doctor?

Moffat is cryptic in response, stressing how it was the number of regenerations rather than the number of Doctors that was the key point. "The Doctor can only regenerate 12 times. I think you should learn how to count, send you all to school," he says, refusing to give any further detail. For a show so adored, and an anniversary so momentous, secrecy is all.

The Doctor Who 50th anniversary episode The Day of the Doctor will screen on ABC1 early on Sunday, November 24 (time to be confirmed). It will be repeated at 7.30pm. The episode will also be screened in 3-D in cinemas nationwide.

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  • APA 6th ed.: Magnay, Jacquelin (2013-10-26). Going for the Doctor. The Weekend Australian p. 4.
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