San Diego Comic-Con — Doctor Who Panel – 24th July, 2011

It was 10:30 p.m. Saturday when I got in line for the Doctor Who panel, which was due in Hall H (capacity: ~6,500) the next day at 12:30 in the afternoon. We’d planned to overnight this year, as we did two years ago when David Tennant came to Con with Who. For Tennant’s turn at SDCC, there wasn’t more than thirty people in line until nearly six a.m. (and that panel was first thing out of the gate, as opposed to running third this year). When I walked up to the Hall H line this year, I walked up on anywhere from a hundred to two hundred people already curled into their sleeping bags, tucked in for the long — and cold! — night ahead. Apparently, The Doctor’s popularity in the States has grown!

Apart from two hours of sleep each, stolen in Valerie‘s hotel room in shifts, we were up shivering on the lawn outside Hall H all night, chatting quietly and listening to the intermittent sound of sonic screwdrivers from various fans in the crowd. As a general side note regarding Con, my stance as somebody who has been going since before it began selling out and has seen it grow to the point of near-misery for the newbies who can’t fathom what to expect and are not mentally prepared . . . I have to advocate that even if the crowds seem daunting, if you have any wish to try to go at all, you should. At least the once.

There’s just simply something magic about three a.m., outside on the pavement or grass (depending on what line you’re in), acting nowhere near your age and swearing every year you will not overnight like this for something ever, ever again . . . with sonics going off faintly in the distance for yards around, the excitement palpable.

But. That could be a whole article in and of itself! Let’s get to the action, shall we?

The SDCC 2011 Doctor Who panel was moderated by Adam Rogers, editor at Wired Magazine, who I had never heard of but did a pretty solid job with his own questions — both throughout the first half of the panel when he was the only one doing the asking, and in the second half when the audience joined in, weaving in his own questions in response to the flow the audience was providing. The panelists included Piers Wenger, executive producer; Beth Willis, executive producer; Toby Whithouse, writer; The Doctor Himself, Matt Smith; and the Doctor’s companion Amy Pond, Karen Gillan.

Right off, Smith bowed to the crowd in worship, and Gillan looked entirely blown away by the view from the stage of all 6,500-odd fans thundering applause for them. With a wry smile, Rogers muttered into the mic, “Hall H, the Doctor. Doctor, Hall H.” After everything seemed to settle and they spoke briefly about how this was their first convention in the States, Smith erupted again in glee: “Look at all the fezzes and stuff!”

 

SDCC Doctor Who Panel

The lighting could have been better (so could our camera!), but at least we got a few snaps!

Most of the information from the panel overall was nothing new to diehard fans, but it was still kind of fun hearing it directly from their mouths, as opposed to reading the text of an interview online. Smith and Gillan spoke about how Steven Moffat — showrunner, executive producer, writer, and possible demigod — had written fake endings for the last few scripts before their current hiatus, which were used during the table read. He then took Smith, Gillan, and Arthur Darvill (Rory Williams, fellow companion of the Doctor’s, as well as Amy’s bumbling husband) aside later and gave them the real last pages, causing the actors to go running down the corridors in excitement.

“We’re truly all fans of the show”, Smith explained, despite having to answer Rogers’ question regarding if they’d watched the show before they were cast in it with the admittance that it hadn’t aired during he and Gillan’s childhood, and they weren’t as familiar with it as the producers were. In contrast, Whithouse explained that he and Wenger had spent “all our lives working towards this moment”, simply by having been fans when they were young.
So what has the difference in fan reaction been in the UK versus the US? The show pulled around 12 million viewers for its Christmas episode, where in the US that number would be a drop in the bucket for a highly anticipated episode of a show with the equivalent exposure in the States as Doctor Who has in Britain. Smith claimed that the difference really came in how Americans really commit to the cheering.

Speaking of the fact that Doctor Who is beloved by all of Britain, a huge part of its popular-social consciousness, Whithouse went on to explain that, “as a writer, in a script, writing a scene heading ‘INT. — TARDIS’, for a man of a certain age there’s no greater thrill”. In fact, when Neil Gaiman took his turn at writing a Doctor Who episode (Series 6’s very well-received “The Doctor’s Wife”), in the first draft that he turned in, after the “INT. — TARDIS” scene description, he added a note: “I have been waiting my whole life to write that. That was amazing.”

The panelists also spoke on how the fact that the Doctor is able to regenerate is a key reason for the show having survived for so long. There’s always the ability to change and update and modernize the show, which in turn lets it grow alongside its audience and fit into the changing landscape of our lives.

Next, the lights dimmed, and they aired the first preview clip montage from Whithouse’s upcoming episode “The God Complex”, which has since been posted online:

 

So what is the secret to writing a good villain for the Doctor? Whithouse explained that the best villains come from finding the humanity within them. If you can find the sympathies and complexities, they are more interesting and even scarier, in some cases. Whithouse gave an example of Signora Rosanna, from his episode “Vampires of Venice”. Her motivations are hardly anything that anyone could blame her for, she’s only wishing for a way to save her race.

After a question regarding if there’d be any resolution to the Impossible Astronaut plot-line this series, Whithouse explained that he doesn’t know for sure, because he tries not to delve into what will be happening in the show outside of what he needs to know to do his job (he mentions that he knew of River Song’s true identity, due to a line that he was required to slip into “The God Complex”). He wants to watch as a viewer and fan, as well, he said. Willis piped in to explain that Moffat takes supreme pleasure in holding back tidbits to those on the crew that would like to know. “He just loves curveballs!”

With all the talk of the second half of Series 6, Smith announced that the show is due to return (on BBC America, he specified, but one could assume it will be the same date in the UK) on the 27th of August.

They then showed the trailer for the back-end of the series:

 

 

Next up was audience questions, which I have paraphrased.

  • How do you feel about the phenomenon around the show?
    This wasn’t answered very clearly from what I could tell, but after a mention of Charlie McDonnell (a YouTube phenom who champions Who like no other, from what I can gather), Smith went on to talk about how nice it is to have people championing it.
  • What scares you?
    For Gillan, it’s Matt Smith! He hides in her bedroom area in her trailer on set with a shoe horn, and jumps out at her. They also spoke on how it’s a very playful set, with a strong family feel. Smith mentions Cardiff to some whoops, much to his confusion. “I love that Cardiff gets a ‘whoop’. You guys have never been!”
  • In ’83 there was a Five Doctors special; will there be another one soon?
    Whithouse: “You’d have to ask Steven that. But yeah, why not!”
    Rogers: “Somewhere, I think I hear Steven Moffat screaming!”
  • Will the Doctor’s daughter come back?
    Again, a Moffat question. But you never know! It should also be noted here that Gillan seemed to think that she died, the rest of the panel had to correct her. “She survived. And then she married the Doctor!“, joked Smith.
  • What about the Dream Lord? Will he return?
    Smith speaks on how he loves the Doctor’s alter ego of sorts, the darkness that it hints at, and that he thinks that he should come back. He thinks it makes sense, since there’s a lot of blood on the Doctor’s hands.

 

SDCC Doctor Who Panel

The audience was slightly nutty . . . in the very best of ways.

Rogers interrupted here to talk about the Nerdist podcast, which had been recorded the night before. He mentioned how Wil Wheaton was on it as well, and that Wil mentioned that he actually knew how to pilot the Enterprise. He wanted to know if the same was of Matt Smith, to which Smith answered that indeed, he received a manual regarding the TARDIS console and what sort of levers do what, and that if you notice each time they take off and land he’s using the same controls over and over again.

  • Favorite alien race?
    Gillan: The Sisters of Plenitude. “The nurse cats!”
    Smith: The Weeping Angels.
  • Favorite Doctor, outside of Matt Smith?
    Wenger & Willis: Tom Baker
    Whithouse: Tom Baker and David Tennant
    Gillan: Christopher Eccleston
    Smith: Patrick Troughton, Tom Baker”What’s so wonderful about this show is that everyone has their own Doctor,” Smith explained.
  • With the 50th anniversary upcoming, do they ever think about how they’re contributing to modern myth?
    Nope. If so, they’d be gigantic asses! Whithouse goes on to explain that writing good television is exhausting, and that it feels like everything happens in a vacuum, so it’s events like this one that they love to come to so that they can feel the fan energy and actually see firsthand the response it’s created.
  • Will the Doctor ever regenerate into a woman?
    It’s possible, but the selection of the newest Doctor is always led by the actor who is right at the time. It always will enter the showrunner’s mind, though, when casting. Wenger made an interesting statement here, noting that from his view, River Song being such a strong character may in fact have stolen the thunder away from the idea of a woman Doctor coming up any time soon.
  • So how much of Matt Smith is in the Doctor, anyway?
    Matt is the Doctor, they insist. He is exactly like that, but just less competent. Moffat apparently has a favorite thing to say when he’s a bit into his cups: “He just is the Doctor. He just is!” Especially now that since Matt Smith has been cast, and Moffat is writing specifically for Smith knowing what works for him and what doesn’t, they’ve become very similar. Smith, though, insists that he wishes he was as cool as him, because he isn’t. (He also throws Gillan under the bus, insisting that she isn’t as cool as Amy, either! Gillan immediately agrees.)

There was a bit of a chat here about how Matt Smith has really done a wonderful job of redefining the Doctor, especially since his predecessor had already done such a superb job of his own definition just a few years before. They pointed out that Smith is the first Doctor ever nominated in the role for a BAFTA.

Smith talked a bit about his audition, and how he was in Aldgate on another audition when he got the call, and how it was simply a game changer. Wenger and Willis spoke a bit about how when Smith walked into the room, it was very obvious that they’d found him, it was so simple. Wenger said he got an email later that day from Moffat, which simply said, “It’s him, let’s face it. It’s always been him.” With Gillan, the process was similar, with them knowing the moment she left the room. Apparently Moffat jumped out of his seat, shouting, “We’ve found her!” Willis was a bit smug about this, as she had predicted that Gillan would get the part.

  • Any acting advice for those studying it?
    Smith: Do your training. Read as many plays as you can and see as much theatre as you can. It’s about courage, so make brave choices creatively.
  • Do you do much research for the science behind the show?
    Not really. The research that you do, according to Whithouse, is more thematic. For instance, for “The God Complex”, he did a lot of research into mythology. But the science part of the show is mostly just made-up, because you can get away with explaining it as just being “timey-wimey”, and focus your time on researching other parts to connect the show to the audience.
  • Was the fez just a throw-away sort of thing, or did they figure it would be a huge thing sweeping fandom?
    Rogers was funny here: “Fezzes are sweeping fandom? Oh, fandom!”, he said cheekily. Smith went on to explain that the fez grew out of his bothering Moffat about wearing a hat, so naturally Moffat gave him the most stupid hat he could think of. “But now it’s all about the Stetson!”

Willis stepped up to explain a little bit more along the lines of Matt Smith’s influence in the show, saying that the Doctor’s costume was really his idea. Smith pulled a tweed jacket out of his bag one day, and then followed with the bow tie, which made everyone groan. Willis left the room for a bit, and when she returned, everyone was excited and urged Smith to put the two back on again to show her. He did, and things just fell into place.

  • Why does the TARDIS make that noise?
    They talked a bit about how this explained in the show with the brakes being on, but more importantly, as far as the sound and the police box relate to the iconology of the show, that it’s really a testament to the original series and how creative and fore-thinking they were to create such a strong icon for them to use across all these years.
  • Why do you keep killing Rory?
    “We keep getting him back, that’s what’s great!” Smith insisted, but honestly . . . they dodged this question, either purposefully or accidentally, and I’d be interested in looking into how they answered it on other occasions. (Possible spoiler alert, if you don’t want to even read speculation: There’s a theory floating around that Rory’s constant deaths are important somehow!)
  • This past season, the actors were given secrets about their characters that they kept from each other (such as Alex Kingston knowing River’s true identity). How does it affect their process?
    Gillan, the little sneak, knows something we don’t! Or anyone else, though she told Smith what it was about but not what it was. “Oh, it’s so good!” she teases, which prompts Rogers to mutter, “You guys suck”. They did go on to mention that it does really help them to keep the secrets in real life from each other, because it brings about a more honest performance.
  • How many sonics has Matt Smith broken?
    “Me? Oh, a lot . . .” he admitted. They all give props to Phil, the props guy (see what I did there?), who is “worth his weight in solid gold”. Smith estimated he breaks at least one sonic a day, as well as pulls bits off the TARDIS console.
  • What show would they like to crossover with Who?
    Gillan: Star Trek: The Next Generation
    Smith: True Blood, Big Bang Theory. “We’re always being mentioned on that one, it’d be cool if we just popped up in a shop.”
  • How do we get from the eleventh Doctor’s screwdriver model to River’s model? And what does the red setting do?
    Smith scoffed at this. “The fact that she has a screwdriver just annoys me!” Obviously he cannot say (more likely doesn’t know) how we get from point A to point B, but he does admit that one had to be careful with the red setting, as it turns you into an orangutan.
  • Was River based upon Bernice Summerfield (a companion of the seventh Doctor in the Doctor Who novels)?
    Moffat would say not at all.
  • Will we be seeing more of the Doctor’s dark side?
    This went back to the question regarding the Dream Lord, and Smith reiterated that he does hope so. He also said that he thinks the biggest reason why the Doctor is so bright and bubbly most of the time is that he cannot stop to think about all the blood on his hands, or else he’d have to really face the losses he’d incurred. The Roses, the Donnas. Gillan popped in to hint that we see a bit of the dark side in episode ten. “Rule number one: the Doctor lies. That’s gonna be explored.”
  • Dream guest writers for the show?
    Wenger: Edgar Wright, Russell T. Davies making a return.
    Willis, Gillan, Whithouse: Road Dahl
    Smith: JJ Abrams or Edgar Wright

Phew! We were finally at the end of all the questions after that. Smith piped up to note that both Piers Wenger and Beth Willis are moving on, and asked the crowd to give them a “group woo hoo”, which elicited a huge round of applause from the hall.

And with that, the panel ended (as well as my 2011 Con experience, and lemme tell you — what a way to go out). I can’t wait for next year! Hopefully if you’ve made it this far through this recap, you’ll come back next summer for more Con coverage! With An Accent will definitely be there.