Turning the Microscope on the Doctor Who Festival, the London leg of the celebratory tour that kicked off the smash hit show’s busiest time of year three weeks ago.
I’m sure Graham Norton, piano plinking Luther and Dot Branning were rushing to the window, but it’s the Twelfth Doctor who saved Sprout Boy in the BBC One Christmas promo that unveiled this week.
Amid the rating rants, the eminent Time Lord is just as important to the British Broadcasting Corporation and Christmas television as at any time during the last decade. And the reasons are clear – I’ve written a fair bit on just how darned important Doctor Who is.
But Christmas seems a long way off in mid-autumn. That’s a key time of year for Who, and 2015’s given it a stronger boost than usual. Tonight will find the Doctor furiously scuff some Gallifreyan soil for a series finale among his own kind after three months of the best Who series for some years. Just under two weeks ago it was the eminent Time Lord’s 52nd birthday, where many a play button was pressed on classic episodes in DVD players (My pop culture blog duly wheeled out and oiled the handlebars of 1960s Cybermen stories for the occasion). And a week before that, the inaugural Doctor Who Festival held sway at London’s Excel Centre for three days.
This Festival proved not to be a celebration of the show’s history, nor even the last decade of
the New Series of Doctor Who, but very specifically the current era.
Two years ago, the 50th birthday saw the Festival‘s precursor, the huge Celebration, arrive at the same venue. That time it was the weekend of the golden anniversary, a celebration of old and new where sofa-fulls of Classic Doctors swapped with Matt Smith and Jenna Coleman’s major final appearance as Doctor and companion.
Two years on and it was a different spectacle. Large auditorium sessions similarly concentrated on special effects courtesy of Millennium FX, a Writer’s Q&A and Actor Showcase. But all of it centred round the latest series, with an emphasis far more specifically on this being an annual festival rather than an anniversary celebration. That’s a huge undertaking and a big leap on from two years before. While the Classic Series and every previous Doctor would always be well represented by merchandise and copious cosplay, it ambitiously pinned the celery on the contemporary show far more than it needed to. Considering the ratings debate that have emerged during the current run, impacted by a late summer, Rugby World Cup and heavy autumn scheduling (not to mention a rather flat marketing campaign) a few eyebrows may have been raised at BBC Worldwide in the run-up to this three day extravaganza.
A week later the Festival popped up to repeat the trick in Sydney, showing the contrary and unpredictable approach of the BBC, following last year whistle stop tour of the world with the Series Eight premiere canister under Peter Capaldi’s arm.
It’s unlikely you’d be at the Doctor Who Festival, even under a press badge, if you’re cynical about the show. And there’s a real buzz sitting in a hall of thousands, part of a crowd all united in their love of the show. For older fans, it can’t help but cast back to those barren years of hiatus. In those shallow, bleak years of the 90s, there were likely a few thousand fans grabbing copies of the Doctor Who Magazine or the Poster Magazine, the reprints of Century 21 or ploughing through some or any of the Virgin New Adventures books and the tail end of TARGET novelisation reprints. Merchandise was grabbed from back page listings, conventions small and pokey, satellite TV the best chance of catching classic episodes from the ‘70s.
As soon as the show returned in 2005, buses on Monday mornings were full of excited school chatter about the weekend’s episode. That’s why Saturday evenings are the undisputed home the show. 2005’s 11 year old’s are 21 now, but a whole new generation is ready to fill in as the audience at the Excel proved. It’s a family event, although some irascible members of the production team let that slip their minds. (“What the fuck is that” went Moffat’s impression of a Zygon – although that’s arguably a 12A film at worse in terms of intent).
On stage, Mark Gatiss propped up the FX panel, to all intents and purpose a late three day confirmation as he positions himself for the shortlist of next showrunner. Another likely candidate, Toby Whithouse appeared on a writer panel, although the one I saw instead had Peter Harness as its prime contender, fresh from the glory of his Zygon two-parter and brilliant summer adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell for the BBC. Harness was joined by Sarah Dollard, articulate, gifted and clearly a great bonus to the series. It would be a week before anyone saw just how good this former Neighbours scripter’s single-part Face the Raven was.
Her presence and the core of the actors’ panel, highlighted the real and welcome of the last few series. Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman were there of course, but backed by crowd favourites Ingrid Oliver and Michelle Gomez. Thinking back to the accusations of misogyny levelled at Moffat during his first couple of seasons, it’s hard not to feel that these crowd pleasers are not just charismatic turns from recurring female cast members, but a reaction 2010. Whatever the root, it’s a welcome change to the dynamic, with a palpable effect on the fan base. Missy and Osgood cosplay and questions stole the show, across all genders. That might be this era’s definitive statement. It shows a big shift from even 2013, the year since which every actor on this stage has appeared.
Peter Capaldi made for a studious figure as always, while Jenna Coleman was clearly overwhelmed. Even if she was feeling the disconnect of having broken ties with the production shortly before sitting in front of thousands of fans, it was clear that both she and Peter were tired. There’s no doubt Clara’s been a popular companion, but it will be fascinating to see who takes her spot on the sofa the next time round.
The writers’ panel was a fascinating, sharp and insightful view into the process. More than might have been expected.
All sessions had superb comperes, particularly the ever impeccable Matthew Sweet. Even when opening the writers’ panel by comparing the auditorium to the delegate scene from The Daleks’ Masterplan. “Officially the saddest Doctor Who fan here” as Moffat would later describe him. During the actor session, compered by Toby Hadoke, the Zarbi and Menoptra earned a round of applause, so that was some early claim.
Part of the insight came from the unpredictability of the ever-exposed production team. Doctor Who fans consume everything. Moffat has shown little sign of mellowing when it comes to criticism. His devout adherence to the show’s foundation of change and subversion, even at the cost of recent continuity, is enthralling but clearly a rod for his back. There were rumoured to be worse exchanges the day following my visit, but there were some clearly awkward moments during audience exchanges. Even mid-sentence, the slightest criticism was caught by sharp intakes of breath by some members of the audience. “A woman like that, you don’t get a chance to get annoyed” he tells one American fan, dressed in Baker1 wear who’d dared to suggest that the Impossible Girl had become a “annoying” at the end of the Matt Smith era. And this auditorium was a room of unadulterated love for his creation.
Moffat introduced himself as “in charge of fiction” resplendent in reliving his peaks of writing joy and despair on stage – and dodging questions about the life of a producer while dismissing the term “showrunner” as journalistic. That was never going to sway the crowd. Moffat always appears in a heightened state of panic about his role. He makes no bones, this is a hard show to create. It’s insightful when he lightly goads Dollard’s initial attempts to provide a breakdown of her script and his encouragement just to launch into drafting immediately and not stop.
It’s even more insightful when he describes his impending pitch of the tenth series to the BBC. Although he backtracks on the process, in the climate of the current ratings and considering Danny Cohen’s sudden exit, that’s probably not far from the truth. Hopefully there will be a realignment between the creative and marketing sides of the programme following this series’ weak and misjudged early promotion. Moffat described how he never writes a series concept down, just as he hadn’t for the show’s fifth series, his first. He could still reel that out beat for beat, he said. It’s affecting. There’s no doubt that Moffat eats and sleeps this behemoth of a show, but it also goes a long way to explain some of the strange blips, mistimings and continuity lapses in the past five series. Again, this markedly illogical series that doesn’t need to have much regard for internal continuity is almost entirely a challenge and he doesn’t try to limit that.
All the more telling were asides concerning changes in running order of series episodes. As always his description of the writing process is genuinely painful. Excruciating. There’s little chance of a Writer’s Tale from this man to match his predecessor’s. Moffat’s continually given us personal insight into the agony and terror of writing while proclaiming that he doesn’t “know where ideas come from”.
His interaction with fans and press has always run at a different speed to Russell T Davies. Moffat might almost sound mournful that people are attending advance screenings and not giving huge secrets away, were it not for his vociferous response to leaks over the last few years. Last year he asked Radio 5 listeners to imagine how much he hated fans who leaked material. But in his reaction to gauge how he thinks this sea change in fan behaviour has come about.
Around the Festival
Elsewhere, there wasn’t the buzz of two years ago, despite the similar audience numbers. Although it would struggle to match a legendary day when the 50th anniversary of the minute of the first episode’s broadcast was met with a cheer… And much of that is in the eye of the fan beholder. Iconic sets were marked in their contrast. A photo opportunity in Clara’s now presumably neglected flat, or the cramped insides of Davros’ exquisitely titled “sick bay”.
The merchandise space was there as ever, doing a fine trade in series old and new. Assistant Directors and other members of the production team hosted their own mini-presentations, while a large Lego TARDIS and recurring presentations from Traveller’s Tales made sure that the incoming Lego Dimensions Game was well represented. That’s a whole new universe.
Series Nine has been the year that the Twelfth Doctor finally arrived, in his mind and the audiences. Two years ago, there was a fine stab of ownership by Patrick Troughton. Long missed sadly, the rediscovery of two of the second Doctor’s missing adventures in the anniversary year, one a bona fide classic, combined with Matt Smith’s rather owing performance, placed a strong onus on him. Peter Capaldi’s portrayal has instead pushed the onus onto Troughton’s successors, Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker. But there was still time at this year’s Festival for interviewees to label the cosmic hobo “wonderful”
It’s hard to imagine an event like this being handled differently, spilt and shepherded as it was in two giant streams. The Festival learned and took up the format of 2013’s Celebration, albeit without the larger focus or live radio interviews (I’m pleased to confirm that Graham Norton did make it out alive two years ago!). Still, it’s difficult to imagine that this feat will be repeated annually. In 2013, “Celebration” was a good term. While “Festival” isn’t bad, I don’t think they’ve yet hit it on the head quite yet.
At the end of a long and enjoyable day, the anecdote of the session came when a young fan faux-rudely asked Peter Capaldi how he could have forgotten about his daughter Jenny (from Series Four’s The Doctor’s Daughter). Moffat, widely reported to have suggested to then showrunner, the great Russell T Davies, that Jenny remained alive at the episode’s end, recalled his predecessor’s conclusive words of comfort to him when he took over:
“Oh, don’t worry about that Steven. She flew straight off into a moon”.
The Doctor Who Festival ran between 14 and 16 November 2016 at London’s ExCel Centre. Matt attended on 15 November. Without his scarf this time.