❉ BILL IS BRILL! New companion actress Pearl Mackie was the star of the Doctor Who panel.
I was reliably informed by BFI consultant Dick Fiddy that, together with the Dame Maggie Smith interview, the panel celebrating the return of Doctor Who in a packed-out IMAX theatre was the hottest ticket of the weekend. It’s easy to see why: the series has been off our screens long enough to make people excited and expectant about it again (if a particularly unwelcome recent spoiler in the media is anything to go by). With speculation about a new Doctor rife both in the press and on social media, Doctor Who is once again, arguably, the biggest talking point of British TV.
Taking the stage rather later than the 1pm start time – presumably because Peter Capaldi and co. had been obliging the excited crowd of autograph and selfie hunters outside – were the Doctor himself, executive producer Brian Minchin, last-minute guest but-try-and-stop-him executive producer Steven Moffat (who was being honoured later that day with an on-stage retrospective) and new companion actress Pearl Mackie (playing student canteen chip-dispenser Bill Potts).
Enthusiastic interviewer and fan Samira Ahmed – she was frequently in the audience with her family at a lot of the BFI’s Doctor Who at 50 events in 2013 – said that one critic who’d seen the first episode of Series Ten had described Mackie’s performance as ‘a charisma bomb.’ The same was true of the woman herself, as she won over the IMAX audience with a combination of charm, intelligence, enthusiasm and good humour; as she’d just finished filming Series Ten, she felt she was ‘so tired she was devoid of all emotion’, while Capaldi admitted that he had to go through his own personal ‘decompression chamber [to] come back to real life’ as, he wryly admitted, ‘not everyone treats me as Doctor Who.’
A selection of clips from Bill’s first episode were greeted enthusiastically by the audience, particularly her first look inside the TARDIS. Afterwards, the panel revealed that the as the character was conceived before the scripts were written, Bill’s attitude to finding everything new and novel – as she knows nothing about space or time travel or – informed the writing of the subsequent scripts, giving this year’s adventures a fresh angle. ‘It’s a brand-new Bill, so [her experiences] are brand new for the audience,’ Minchin remarked, while Moffat said that cheekily calling the opening episode The Pilot made it an ideal ‘jumping-on point’ for newbies while, for the dedicated viewer, the companion’s reaction to everything new was a nostalgic ‘reminder of when you first watched the show.’
Pearl was disarmingly honest about her lack of television experience, amusing the audience by saying, ‘by the end of the first day, I’d had more hours in front of the camera than I’d ever had before.’ Mackie’s experience certainly doesn’t show; Capaldi praised her ‘life and sparkle’ and declared that she was one of the best things about the new series.
For his part, in his last year Capaldi was happy to enjoy ‘being Doctor Who’ and to ‘play it as truthfully as I can’. He was gratified that Moffatt had written in an encounter with the original Mondas Cybermen as ‘a parting gift’, although with typical humour he confided that he just liked the sound of the phrase ‘Mondasian Cybermen’, and kept using it whenever he was asked what his favourite monster was.
Looking at the new stories, Minchin recommended ‘some scary monk creatures’ that assumed more significance as the series progressed, while Ahmed garnered a round of applause for asking whether a story that featured a monster that ate Scots and Romans ‘was about Brexit.’ This prompted a thoughtful response from Moffat, who said a) no it wasn’t, and b) believed that political satire shouldn’t really be part of Doctor Who’s brief (although there have been notable exceptions, such as the two-part Zygon story in 2015).
Minchin also commented that, with a lot of competition from television and movies, the production team had a duty to make the series ‘better and better’. Asked to name one of his highlights of Series Ten, Moffat teased, ‘Watch out for the best interrupted date ever.’
Nostalgia, influences, favourites…
The chat became more general with questions about nostalgia, influences on the show and that reliable old chestnut of a subject, favourite stories. Moffat felt that on balance it was probably better that you could re-watch every story ‘200 times minimum’, rather, as in the 1960s and 1970s, only being able to watch it once; Minchin highlighted the huge sense of ownership people had for the show while, interestingly, Capaldi said he wasn’t keen on the rigid ‘quantifying of the past’ and liked ‘the idea that the show gets lost and fed by abstractions.’ He brought out one of the biggest audience laughs of the days by adding, ‘Someone once said I was a fan of the show but not a student.’
As for other genre influences on the show, Moffat countered that ‘Doctor Who is a huge influence on itself. Buffy – The Vampire Slayer one week, I, Claudius one week, romcom the next… short of an anthology series, it shifts around in style so much.’ Significantly, he believed that Doctor Who was now ‘television’s first and most successful myth,’ ranking in terms of folklore longevity alongside Robin Hood and Sherlock Holmes, and ‘will outlive all of [us].’
The first question from the audience, asked by a young fan, moved both Moffat and Capaldi to condemn the ‘wretched’ people who were cyberbullies: ‘the main thing about Doctor Who is kindness, and if these people aren’t kind, they’re not really a fan of it’.
The series’ relationship with the press came under some amusing scrutiny. Moffat admitted the series’ record on leaks was ‘now only excelled by the British security services,’ while Capaldi recounted an awkward moment in his first encounter with German journalists when he was asked, ‘Are the Daleks based on the Nazis?’ Luckily, his honest answer that they were won over his questioner.
Minchin’s favourite episode was Fires of Pompeii, which he’d script edited, while Moffat singled out Richard Curtis’s Vincent and the Doctor and its mature treatment of depression and mental illness for particular praise. Pearl singled out the yet-to-be-seen Thin Ice – although, for obvious reasons, she couldn’t say why – while, for Capaldi, certain filming days were ‘utterly magical’, such as the time he participated in an invasion of Cybermen in the sunshine over St. Paul’s Cathedral. That other old chestnut, who would he choose to play the Doctor, brought forth his previously stated preference for the veteran actress Frances de la Tour: ‘it’s be great to see her facing off against Davros in an acidic version of [Leonard Rossiter and de la Tour’s 1970s’ sitcom] Rising Damp.’
Pertinently, when asked what he would remember about being the Doctor, he said that, on a good day, ‘you become this amazing, mythic figure. A room full of children gasps just because Doctor Who walked in. That’s amazing.’
For all the children of all ages in the IMAX on Sunday April 9, the closing applause indicated that Saturday 15 April can’t come quickly enough.
❉ Doctor Who returns to BBC One at 7.20pm on Saturday 15 April with episode 1, The Pilot.