He’s back, as the hyperactive BBC continuity announced once burbled, and it’s about time! Paul McGann’s 8th Doctor is back in action following Big Finish’s bleak Doctor Who audio To The Death – a story arc that put him through the wringer. Now a more sombre, haunted figure, he finds himself in the First World War, meeting new companion Molly O’Sullivan (Primeval‘s Ruth Bradley), finding a new look, and uncovering a conspiracy that stretches across the universe in Doctor Who: Dark Eyes. We spoke to director, writer and Dalek voice king Nicholas Briggs about this bold new era for the 8th Doctor, and where his adventures could take him next…
Was the setting and story arc written with Paul’s new look in mind?
The setting and the storyline really came from things Paul McGann has been saying to me for a while. We’ve often spoken about the First World War and modern history in general, so I knew he had a passion for that. But he’s always told me he’s fascinated by the darkness in the Doctor’s character – not that he thinks the Doctor is evil, but that all those terrible evils the Doctor has had to deal with will have had an effect on him. I knew Paul was keen on us using the image of the new costume, and you may know that he’s gone public with the fact that he spoke to someone at BBC Worldwide about it a while back, but no decision was forthcoming. So I didn’t exactly plan to have the new costume in this story, but I sort of hoped it would pan out that way.
Was the 8th Doctor’s new costume something that he brought to you with the hope of working into the storyline?
Yes, it was definitely something Paul had spoken about to us. He’d talked about maybe getting some photos done, so he had something new to take to conventions. So when we started recording Dark Eyes, I asked him if he fancied having a snapshot done. For the first time in years, he said, ‘Yeah, why not?’ Paul has made no secret of the fact that he’s not particularly comfortable with having his photo taken. We’ve always respected that. We always ask him, sometimes he’s said yes, but mostly he’s said he’d rather not have his picture taken. But given that he’d already agreed to a little snapshot with Ruth Bradley, I said, ‘Oh, and what about a few pictures with you in that new costume of yours?’ He considered for a moment, then said something like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it!’ with a big grin on his face. At that stage, I didn’t know if the BBC would sign off on it, so I didn’t put any overt mentions of it into the script. But I knew that it would be obvious that after his old costume gets covered in mud, soaked and shredded, he’d clearly need new clothes!
Was the process of getting the BBC to sign off on that ensemble quite complex?
The usual process we go through with covers. We just put it on the cover and sent it through the usual channels. They approved it. We had a version in the old costume ready, in case they said no.
Paul seems incredibly energetic in Dark Eyes, how was he to work with on this one?
You’ve hit the nail on the head. Incredibly energetic. I think the story really caught his imagination this time. I think the Great War theme helped. It’s something that’s very familiar to him. I don’t think he’d have been so enthusiastic if we’d started on the Planet Zog, as Russell used to call it. I also worried about how he’d get on with Ruth, because he and I and the whole team had really adored Sheridan [Smith, who played previous companion Lucie Miller]. But I needn’t have worried. Within minutes that were getting on. Actors do that if the chemistry is right, and I could see they were going to get on after their first scene together. I also recorded all their scenes in story order, so their relationship developed at the same pace as the character relationship.
There’s a few echoes of the dynamic between the 9th Doctor and Rose, and a nice lampshading of the Time War, as well as the new look having a fair bit in common with Christopher Eccleston’s – are you consciously moving into that darker space between the 8th and 9th, or is it just a coincidence?
I didn’t consciously echo the 9th Doctor and Rose relationship, but I take that as a compliment, because what Russell did with Rose and the 9th Doctor is what made Doctor Who the incredible success it was. We forget how rubbish Doctor Who could have been. How it could have just died after one series. We sort of take it for granted now. But what Russell did was take the usual, adorable Doctor-companion relationship and inject a bit more realism and honesty into it.
Doctor Who grew up a bit with Russell, and I wholeheartedly embraced that. It’s something I’d been trying to do for years with my Big Finish stuff, specifically Dalek Empire, which didn’t feature the Doctor, so I felt I could make the relationships more ‘real’. And then I saw Russell do it in Doctor Who, so ever since, I felt I had licence to be influenced by that… especially since the 8th Doctor stuff is, however long the journey turns out to be, on the road towards the 9th Doctor adventures. So, to that extent, I can see the similarity between the Rose and 8th Doctor relationship and the Molly and 8th Doctor relationship. What’s different here is that Molly is someone who has looked into the jaws of hell, has faced the most appalling things, death on an almost incomprehensible scale.
When you face terrible challenges, you either crumble or you get stronger. Molly got stronger, on the outside at least. I wanted to explore the idea of what it’s like to be caught up in dire circumstances with no chance to stop and think. When the 8th Doctor and Molly get to stop and think, she says something along the lines of ‘We don’t really know each other’ in quite a harsh way. I like that bluntness. I think it makes the relationship between the Doctor and a companion far more interesting and compelling.
I had a bit of fun with the Time War thing, having the Doctor react to the idea of such a thing as preposterous. So, in a way, the story does dangle the Time War out there, but then blows it away. But at the same time, the Daleks are clearly now focusing their efforts on the Time Lords, so you can see the seeds of something there. But I maintain that the Time War is best left as something almost mythical. It can never live up to the hype. It’s much better half-imagined in our anticipations of it.
As for the costume being a bit like Chris’s – I can’t deny that. It’s obvious for all to see. I remember when Chris took on the role, Paul wryly joked about how “Eccleston got a better costume than me”. I was at a convention with Paul when he wore a leather jacket rather like a more beaten up version of Chris’s. Paul was clearly already thinking of that kind of thing. I’m just happy that we’ve got a new image to play with. It certainly captured my imagination and seems to have captured almost everyone else’s too.
Did you already have an idea in mind for the kind of companion you wanted to introduce, or did Molly find herself shaped by the story?
I had the idea that she would be a volunteer nurse in the First World War. Then Paul McGann’s agent asked us why we never went to her for companions, so we had a look at her client list, and saw a couple of Irish girls… and that got me thinking about the exciting prospect of having a new accent in the TARDIS! That sort of thing is very important on audio, of course. And I’d already seen and admired Ruth’s work. But then the character really shaped herself as the story developed. I wrote an extremely detailed storyline and made the decision right from the start that she would be the central character.
I wanted the name of the story to be her name in some way. So when I played around with Irish names and discovered that O’Sullivan meant ‘dark eyes’, I knew I had my title. Molly is one of those obviously good Doctor Who companion names, but it didn’t occur to me for quite some time. In fact, after a few false starts, we’d settled on Brianna, before Molly suddenly hit me between the eyes. I don’t know why it did. But when it did, it just seemed right. I like ideas that just feel right.
How do you balance the various eras and expectations of Doctor Who? Dark Eyes seems to have nods to the Sixties format, and the current series in the way its structured.
I leave all this to my gut instinct. I’m a Doctor Who fan through and through. To bastardize a quote from my own work (Dark Eyes, of course!), I’m like a stick of rock with Doctor Who written all through me. Nods to various elements of the ever changing format of Doctor Who tumble out of me, uncontrollably. It’s like being spoilt for choice with a fantastic box of chocolates. What can I say? I love my Doctor Who. And there was a part of me that thought, Why can’t I do something a bit like ‘The Chase’, but maybe not make it so silly? I love ‘The Chase’. But that evolved from wanting to do a whole era of Doctor Who in one box. That was my aim. I wanted to show that they had many trips together. I even toyed with having a bit where nothing much happened, but I soon realised that would just be boring. The nearest I got was the beach scene, with anti-grav waves… but then a monster turn up and bit some people! Oh, and that bloody great flying saucer!
Where do you think the 8th Doctor goes from here?
He’s going somewhere that Matt Fitton, Alan Barnes and I are having a big meeting about soon. We already have a plan laid out and the idea is that the 8th Doctor’s next adventure will span three box sets, packed full of loads of different adventures. It will draw on what’s already happened, the Daleks may well be involved, but it will also draw on some other, original creations which have already featured in some Big Finish Doctor Who stories which haven’t been released yet. I can say no more, because it would spoil future stories to give too much away. But it’s something really nasty! And that’s an exclusive I’ve given you there.
Doctor Who: Dark Eyes is available from Big Finish as a four-disc box-set or digital download for £20.