Last weekend saw the first-ever Official Doctor Who Convention at the Millennium Centre in Cardiff, Wales. The Centre is famous among Whovians not only as the fictional headquarters for Torchwood 3, the Cardiff branch of the organization tasked with protecting the Earth from aliens (the headquarters are beneath the plaza in front of the Centre), but also as the real world filming location for multiple episodes of the show. The Millennium Centre has so far served as the hospital in season two’s “New Earth” and the Two Streams quarantine facility from season six’s “The Girl Who Waited” along with a brief spot in “The Sound of Drums,” so it seemed the perfect location for this enormous gathering of fans; and gather they did. Over the course of the day (the convention actually stretched over the full weekend with Sunday’s events mirroring Saturdays so fans need only attend one day) I heard of people traveling from all over the UK, Europe, North America, Canada and even as far as Australia to attend. The event lasted from 9 am to 6 pm and was so cram packed full of things to do that I barely found time to eat. This post will focus on the three panel sessions in the main theater, with a follow-up post focusing on the smaller events.
The attending fans were split into two groups, Oods and Silurians, who attended the events in different set orders. My first event was the “Creators and Directors” panel hosted by Gary Russell. This panel focused on the production of a single episode, appropriately enough “The Girl Who Waited,” and featured input from its Writer Tom MacRae, Producer Marcus Wilson, Millennium Effects Director Neill Gorton and Robert Allsop — the man responsible for creating the Hand Bots. Together they explained the challenges they faced during the production of the episode and the ways in which they solved these. Some of the original ideas for the episode were explained. The Time Glass was the initial concept that sparked the story; however, it was originally going to be used for looking into a prison. In this case series six already had a prison episode, and so the story was re-worked to change the location to a quarantine facility. Tom explained that he was aware that Rory was rarely at the center of the story and so he wrote the episode to be a “good meaty story” for Arthur Darvil whom he already knew. He also explained how he dislikes “spaceships for the sake of spaceships” and prefers to write stories about humanity — “loss, ageing, all those things you see in a gritty realistic drama,” but to tell those stories “in a completely different, impossible way.” “All the impossible stuff,” he says of writing Doctor Who, “is about talking about real things;” the show is a “heartfelt drama about relationships and people and humanity, but told through the prism of science fiction.”
We learned that the episode was scripted to minimize the use of Matt himself as it was filmed back to back with “Closing Time” — a very Doctor heavy, Amy/Rory light story. The use of CG effects in the production was also discussed; whilst CG is often equated with “big” scenes — battles, sweeping alien landscapes — it is often actually used in small parts such as the images in the Time Glass and the sparks in the final fight scene. Tom explained that his personal brief for the Hand Bots was to come up with something that “would finally get made into a toy.” That hasn’t happened yet, although a Hand Bot will be included in series three of the collectable figures by Character Building. However, towards the end of the panel, a full scale Hand Bot was brought onto the stage to allow the audience to see the episode’s main baddie in the flesh, so to speak. Neill discussed the difficulties in aging Karen Gillan by 37 years so she could play “old Amy,” including discussing some of the prosthetics and makeup techniques used. The casting team had initially considered casting another actress until Karen specifically requested to play the part herself. Finally, one of the most fascinating anecdotes was related to one of the final scenes where “old” Amy’s hand is seen through the glass door panel from the inside of the TARDIS, creating one of the most heartbreaking moments of the season. Tom hadn’t realized you could see through the glass until he was on set; he checked with the production office as to whether the glass was see-through in canon and discovered it was (you can see out but not in) which prompted him to add in that specific moment.
My next event was the “Meet the Stars” panel, which was naturally attracting the most excitement from the crowd before it even began. Matt, Karen and Arthur all appeared onstage along with series head writer Stephen Moffat and executive producer Caroline Skinner. This is the first time any of them had appeared at a convention outside of last year’s San Diego Comic Con and it was immediately obvious that these are people who genuinely love the show they work on, Stephen describing himself as a “Doctor Who geek” who still reads articles in the papers to see what is about to happen on the show before remembering that he already knows. Together they talked about working together, their experiences filming the show and what they had been up to lately. On being asked where he gets his ideas, Stephen explained that to him it was about trying to reproduce the “way it used to make [him] feel” when he was a kid, rather than focusing on the details of the show he remembered. Matt also added in that the show is “not bound by space, by time, by genre, by logic” which allows them to “reinvent the wheel” every time; a lot of the show’s excitement comes from the stakes being so high he points out later, “it’s life and death every ten pages and as an actor, it’s literally — the world is going to end.” Karen revealed that the actors have a lot of say in the character’s wardrobe: “I think it’s really important to have an input into what you wear because that makes you feel like the character” she said, before adding that she likes the new direction Amy’s wardrobe is taking in season seven. This wasn’t the only revelation about the forthcoming series during the session; we learned that the day before had seen Karen and Arthur spending most of the day suspended upside down on set, much to the amusement of both Matt and Stephen. “When I was upside down, I did see [Stephen] just walk in and start giggling,” Arthur pointrf out, “that’s what Stephen does,” added Matts, “I get idle threats of ‘I can make you naked…'”
The second half of the session was given over to audience questions, and there were a lot, as most of the audience seemed to have their hands in the air. Karen was asked about her move to London from her small hometown of Inverness, “I was quite young when I did it so I had blind optimism on my side” she said; when asked if it was scary, “in retrospect, it was scarier.” A popular subject throughout the panels was the Doctor’s love life, especially his relationship with River Song. When an audience member asked if we could expect any more romantic scenes in the future, Matt piped up with his own thoughts on Eleven’s apparent confusion when anyone kisses him, “I just think he finds it ridiculous. What are you doing? Why are your lips touching mine? That’s silly!” The final question of the session came from a young member of the audience who asked Matt how you make a Sonic Screwdriver. Matt went on to surprise everyone by explaining the entire process before ending the session by leaping off the stage to offer a plate of jammy dodgers to those in the front rows. I’ll leave it to Matt’s excellent description to share:
“Well it’s basically essentially an amalgamation of TARDIS energy and the Doctor’s wizardry of mind. So what he does is he finds a load of different parts and he feeds them all into the TARDIS which atomizes them, very cleverly, and then after it atomizes them it spits them up through a tube which comes out right to the top of the TARDIS, bops out, bops back down, goes through a little paint job process where it goes psssshht then it whizzes out the TARDIS and there you have a Sonic Screwdriver.”
My third and final panel session was Doctor Who Uncut. Whereas the first had focused on the production of a single episode, this session covered the production of an entire season, from initial casting — naturally a hot topic given last week’s announcement of new companion Jenna Louise Coleman — to the order in which episodes are aired. Hosted by Barnaby Edwards, the man who has sat inside the Daleks since 2005, the panel included Stephen Moffat, Caroline Skinner, Casting Director Andy Pryor, Production Designer Michael Pickford, “Rebel Flesh/The Almost People” Director Julian Simpson and Director of Photography Stephan Pehrsson who explained the endless meetings, read-throughs and decision making that goes into bringing the show to the screen. Stephen explained that after he has pitched an overall season concept, he then begins assigning the individual scripts to the writers he believes will suit them best, sometimes offering multiple episode concepts to the same writer until he sees their eyes light up. Stephen revealed that when he writes a scene he really wants to see on TV, he comes up with ways to make it integral to the plot to avoid it being cut. There is even something he has written into the new season that he is worried about: “This morning I was thinking how can I make it more relevant to the end of the episode so they’ll actually do it,” he admitted.
This session also featured one of the biggest surprises of the weekend: the first teaser trailer for season seven which will air later this year was premiered, promoting gasps of shock and delight from the crowd.
Stephen, as usual, refused to elaborate much on what we could expect from this year’s episodes. However, we did learn that the Daleks would be returning. The Weeping Angels would also be appearing in the Pond’s final episode, which will involve a trip to New York — prompting immediate speculation online around a certain infamous statue. Stephen did rule out a crossover between Doctor Who and his other popular franchise Sherlock, “I have a horrible feeling that it’s a lot more fun in your imagination than it could ever be in reality” he says. One of the last questions asked was where Stephen thought the show would be in fifty year’s time, when it celebrates its 100th anniversary. “On television,” Stephen answered simply. With the way the franchise has been growing over the past seven years, it’s not so hard to imagine that he may well be right.
Entry to the convention was provided free of charge for this review. Come back next week to read about some of the other events that were taking place.