DOCTOR WHO Producer Piers Wenger Exclusive Interview; Talks About the Fifth Series, the New Doc and Filming in America

     November 15, 2010

If you thought Doc Brown’s DeLorean form Back to the Future was cool, wait till you check out the new TARDIS. The time travel vessel, or Time And Relative Dimension(s) In Space, has been pimped up for the fifth series of the classic BBC series Doctor Who, just released on DVD and Blu-ray with an array of bonuses.

It may look like a phone booth, but its interior is as big as the west wing of the Starship Enterprise. According to producer Piers Wenger, the revamped interior design reflects “a real mish-mash between old and new, young and old,” much like the show itself, for Doctor Who has traveled through almost five decades seamlessly. And it isn’t merely about time travel, it is a sci-fi phenomenon. Hit the jump to find out more and read my interview with Piers Wenger.

Created in 1963, Doctor Who holds the Guinness World Record for being the most successful and longest-running sci-fi series on television. The original series ran until 1989 and, with the exception of a TV movie in 1996, the Doctor remained dormant throughout the 90s. He was probably avoiding the bad fashion of the decade, but finally returned to earthly screens in 2005.

Through the years, there have been eleven different reincarnations the 900-something year old Doctor. While the previous interpreter, David Tennant, was massively popular, today’s Eleventh Doctor is in a league of his own. Actor Matt Smith has the right dose of mad scientist eccentricity, boyish charm and British cheekiness to make this reboot as modern as it is true to its classic roots. His enigmatic sidekick Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) provides the ideal counterbalance and some much-needed companionship on the TARDIS.

Part of its success and longevity of the show is also due to the fact that the production teams have often changed.

When Tennant left the series, so did its producers. Piers Wenger and Beth Willis took over, along with executive producer, longtime fan and award-winning writer Steven Moffat, whose credits include Jeckyll, Coupling and the upcoming Spielberg movie Tintin. And it really is the quality of his writing that makes the series. It goes beyond the realms of imagination and mixes a world of emotions, from humor to fear. Yes, Doctor Who can be very frightening and while some of the voyages through time and space and land in places like 1940s London and 16th century Venice may seem exciting, they are also riddled with enemies from beyond this galaxy.

You can watch the fifth series without ever having watched a single episode (or so some have told me), or you can catch up with the entire series, which we reviewed here.

Season 6 will being airing in the UK next spring. In a phone interview from London, Piers Wenger talks about Doctor Who’s appeal and the creative process which involves watching the British version of American Idol!

Collider: The TARDIS is really pimped up!

Piers Wenger: Yeah, it is! “Diesel Punk” is how someone described when they first saw it. We kind of imagined that the TARDIS would be – what’s the word? – intelligent. It would be like intelligent software that adapts itself to the personality of the Doctor who is flying it. And that’s why for this Doctor it needed to be something with anarchy about it, like a real mish-mash between old and new, young and old. That felt a little bit fun, too!

It’s as cool a vessel as the DeLorean from Back to the Future.

Wenger: I love that movie! That’s one of the movies that I absolutely loved when I grew up. Michael J. Fox was incredibly cool! And I think even Steven’s writing is preoccupied with individual timelines and what happens when timelines cross and how if you go back and change the past the impact it will on your future. That is one of the great elements of Doctor Who and I guess of any show that is concerned with time travel. It does allow you to be in an incredibly fine action-adventure show to examine some of those big science-fiction questions and has a long-enduring interest to television audiences. It’s a kind of big “What if” proposition to them, which is a great basis for an hour’s entertainment.

Were you anticipating that the fifth series of Doctor Who would be so hugely successful in America?

Wenger: We had great confidence in him to play that character, whether it be in the UK or in the US, and I think the things that have proved successful about him here were likely to also appeal to worldwide audiences. His comedy and his ability to go from a moment of great fun to a moment of real fear and jeopardy and join those moments seamlessly… I think Matt is just an incredibly compelling and resourceful actor and always destined to appeal to audiences around the world.

He’s perfect for the role. How was he cast?

Wenger: We met him at the casting – we’d talked about him before them. He’d done a small amount of TV work and I’d seen him onstage in a play at the Royal Court Theater in London. It felt right to cast someone who no one knew anything about. We wanted to cast an actor without any baggage at all. When we met Matt, we just had the courage of our convictions. He gave us the courage to follow those convictions, basically, because there was something so essentially Doctory about him and that’s as relevant in real life as it is on screen.

Did you ask the actors to watch the old series of Doctor Who?

Wenger: Well, most young people over here have watched the series anyway, not necessarily all of it but they were very familiar with it and its heritage.

You use the word heritage and it is considered as British television’s greatest heritage. Was it a daunting project for you to take on?

Wenger: Yeah, it was terrifying, particularly in the UK. Matt’s predecessor David Tennant had been phenomenally successful and hugely popular in the role. [It was terrifying] to Steve Moffat particularly. He has been an obsessive follower of the show since he was a child and has written for previous series, previous Doctors. To take on the challenge of running the show – he obviously felt incredibly pressured to get it right. But he’s a brilliant writer and all of that preparation had just given him the knowledge he needed to take on the show and to hit the ground running with it. Steven has also written hugely successful sitcoms over here and Matt’s way with a good comic line and his ability to play the clown meant that he was particularly well-prepared to play Steven Moffat’s Doctor.

How do you and Steven work together?

Wenger: Very closely, very happily. We talk all the time. I watched the X-Factor, which is the equivalent of American Idol over here, with him on Saturday night! During those occasions, we talk about Doctor Who as well. It has to a quite symbiotic relationship. Having said that, he also is a great showman. He loves to surprise you with the twists and turns of the storylines. He won’t always tell us so far in advance what’s going to happen, but he does tantalize us with what’s going to happen at the beginning of each series. But really, we talk about everything from casting to who’s going to direct what to what the Doctor should wear, how Amy should move on between series. It’s a big show and requires constant reviews and discussions.

Steven also writes feature films…

Wenger: Yeah, he wrote the screenplay for Tintin.

This series of Doctor Who, with its style of writing and its orchestral music, could actually lend itself to the big screen.

Wenger: I think people now expect as much from TV as they often do from cinema. People watch DVDs on the incredibly sophisticated home entertainment systems, and they need to be able to compete with the movies they’re watching on their TVs and HD DVD players. It’s not that we set out to contrive storylines to be like movies, but we know that they just have to be. It’s just a given of working in television now.

Is it also a way to appeal to global audiences?

Wenger: Absolutely. The great thing about sci-fi, it’s not really like period drama. Sci-fi is loved by audiences all over the world. So we need to play to its strengths, we need to deliver the spectacle and all of the bells and whistles that people associate with sci-fi.

What are some of your favorite sci-fi movies or TV shows?

Wenger: I love Christopher Nolan and I love Inception and I love The Dark Knight. As far as I’m concerned, he’s the best. I love Peter Jackson as well. He delivers something entirely different but his movies have such heart and such spectacle to them that they’re pretty irresistible to me.

Do you want to go on to produce on the big screen?

Wenger: (Laughs) I guess the great thing about Doctor Who is that we make thirteen episodes every year and a Christmas special. Each one is set in a different alien planet or a different universe or a different time. It often feels you are creating, from a design point of view, like a movie in itself. You feel like you’re producing thirteen of them by the time you finish the series because each one is different. You don’t really have a precinct to rely on that most TV shows do. It is a different movie every week.

A lot of TV shows have been adapted to the big screen. Will there ever be a Doctor Who movie?

Wenger: Oh, I hope so. It’s something which is often discussed and why not? The gap is closing on what you attempt on television versus what people normally expect from film, and I think Doctor Who passes the gap between film and TV.

What can you tell me about the upcoming season?

Wenger: Well, I can say with great anticipation and excitement the new season starts off in two parts which is set in America. The team left the UK on Saturday and is traveling out to Utah, to Mojave, where they’re filming some scenes. There are scenes set in New York and San Francisco. It is Doctor Who’s love letter to the States. Last year started with the TARDIS crash-landing on Big Ben in London and that was an opportunity for British audiences to be reminded of Doctor Who’s British heritage. But this year, it’s all about America, it’s all about taking the show out to the States and seeing what Doctor Who will feel like set in America and in some very iconographic parts of the American landscape.

Will he meet the President?

Wenger: He will meet a president! (Laughs)

The Christmas special is called A Christmas Carol. Is it based on the Dickens story?

Wenger: It kind of riffs on the Dickens story. There’s no one called Scrooge in it and it’s not set on Earth, but there are familiar archetypes from that story within it that will please fans of Dickens’s original.

When will season 6 begin airing?

Wenger: It will begin airing in the UK around Easter next year.