Digital Spy

Search Digital Spy

TV Interview

James Strong ('Doctor Who')

By
James Strong ('Doctor Who')
Easter is traditionally a time for family, perhaps a visit to church - and of course, chocolate by the bucketload. But perhaps even more excitingly, Easter is also the time we'll get to see the first of this year's four Doctor Who specials, the ominously-named Planet of the Dead. The one-hour episode sees Michelle Ryan join The Doctor on a bus-trip which takes "a very unexpected detour into danger". Intrigued, we gave Doctor Who director James Strong a call to find out more.

What's the story of Planet of the Dead?
"Well I'm not allowed to give away everything, as you can imagine, but basically it's a modern day story and the Doctor encounters the mysterious Lady Christina de Souza (Michelle Ryan) who is halfway through a robbery, basically. The Doctor is simultaneously tracking a wormhole which may or may not be threatening the Earth and basically they are - by various means - transported through this wormhole into another planet. So then it's working out what's happening and whether they can get back or not."

So this is set in the modern day, then?
"It starts off in the modern day, a contemporary story set in London."

What sort of a companion does Michelle Ryan make?
"It's back to basics – she's probably more of a traditional, romantic kind of Thomas Crown Affair kind of heroine, if you like, whereas Catherine Tate playing Donna was a bit more of a best mate. It echoes to me of Rose, in that there may be a good old fashioned romantic connection between them. She's young, she's beautiful, she's sexy, but whereas Rose was a very ordinary, normal girl, Lady Christina is a lady, she comes from a very privileged, very elite background. She's different to any of the companions we've ever had in that she doesn't particularly want to get caught up with the Doctor. She's got her own thing going on, so she's very much a match for the Doctor and very much an equal. Often in an adventure the Doctor will take control and everyone will do what he says. She's very much in control – the two of them are in a sparring way, battling against each other to get through this adventure."

That romantic interest in each other – it's reciprocal?
"Oh yeah – it's a good old fashioned flirt! It's two very young, sexy people who are thrust together and there's chemistry. They might not actually get on that well to start with but there's definitely something... there's a connection between them."

Is it fair to say this episode is more fun than, for example, the Christmas special?
"Yes – I think it's very fair to say after the more sombre element of the end of the last series and indeed even the Christmas one, which was a quite sombre affair, this is a complete contrast. It's probably the last chance for a bit of fun, excitement and adventure before things start to take a darker turn towards the end of this Doctor's reign as the Doctor. I think it's very much a standalone story. It doesn't really play into anything that's happened before or is going to happen afterwards - it's a very self contained adventure and I think because of that it has a kind of feel of its own which is great. You're not necessarily bound into what's happening before and what's happening afterwards."

You say it's quite contained but we know that Captain Magambo is back from 'Turn Left' – what's her involvement in it? Is it more of a major role this time?
"Basically, without giving too much away, the wormhole is a doorway between this world – our world in modern day London – and this other planet, the Planet of the Dead. But this wormhole is obviously creating a big fuss this side and that side so UNIT are involved in dealing with what's happening on this side of the wormhole, while the Doctor works out what's going on and tries to get back on the other."

What does Lee Evans add to things?
"Well Lee Evans plays a UNIT scientific officer called Doctor Malcolm Taylor, so again there's a relationship between the Doctor and Malcolm, but it's over the phone so there's dualness of the adventure, in that the Doctor's communicating and having a rapport with Malcolm throughout but actually they're separated. They're either side of the wormhole. Both of them need each other to help work out what's going on. Obviously people think he brings comedy and humour, which he does in bucket-loads, but he also brings a tremendous heart and he's also a very fine actor. It's great to have that element in Doctor Who – genuine laughs and genuine moments of comedy in amongst the excitement and the horror and the fear. There are genuine laugh-out-loud moments, which is quite unusual for Doctor Who!"

What was the production timeline on the special?
"It was fairly tight, to be honest. The whole entire production process was incredibly tight because we had to fit in with David finishing Hamlet and then delivering it for Easter so we couldn't start filming until after January. So we filmed it January/February and then a very quick, barbaric post-production schedule which, well, we're just finishing now. It's also quite a CGI-heavy episode as well, which is the stuff that needs the turnaround time but there's legions of men and women in a bunker in the Mill as we speak working away to ensure it's ready."

According to reports in the press a while back you had to make substantial rewrites to the script after your bus got mangled - what's the truth behind that?
"I think it would be fair to say the tabloids added their own spin to that. Rumours of the crisis that gripped the production were quite obviously completely blown out of proportion, I mean yes, we had a bus that was damaged but the reason it wasn't damaged in the first place was because we were told it would be too expensive to do! The irony of the whole thing was that when the bus was damaged on its way to Dubai it took about ten minutes to sort it out. Russell just basically switched around from the draft of the script from before we'd changed it. So although it was a bit of a shock when it happened, actually it fits the story even better. Funny the way these things work out – it worked out eminently for the best so it's all good."

What sort of place was Dubai like to film in and why did you pick Dubai?
"We were looking for a desert really, pure and simple. Somewhere we could be completely surrounded by sand and sand dunes and have that feel of a real desert. We looked at Morocco and Tunisia and determined what was the cheapest option and what was the most efficient option to get our bus to and would be the quickest in terms of time. It really does look beautiful, stunning. It's also a desert that I bizarrely feel like I've not seen before so it looks like an alien planet, which is great."

And this is also the first Doctor Who episode to be filmed in HD. How did that affect production and why now have you moved to HD?
"It was always a hope that we could go to HD. I was always keen because Torchwood was obviously started in HD so it's been going a while. I think there was a feeling with Doctor Who that because of the number of CGI effects involved that actually it was more expensive to render these effects in HD, so it was always a cost thing but now the industry's changed and HD's become the norm – actually the cost parameter has finally shifted into the sense in which it wasn't more expensive and actually price comparisons were the same. Also I think there was a feeling that Doctor Who should be in HD and can now be on the HD channel and I think it can hold its place with everything else that's going around. Also because we were filming in Dubai the HD cameras are better at handling more extreme light and more extreme conditions, so all these things came together and it seemed the logical thing to do."

Is there a clean ending for the episode or do you set up the next one with the first few seconds of the next episode?
"There's a little kind of clue. I wouldn't say we don't give anything out at all – we offer a hint - a suggestion of what is to come. It's quite powerful but it's quite obscure as well. This story very much ends and we're left wondering what the next adventure for the Doctor is."

There's no Catherine Tate in a wedding dress?
"No – nothing like that. Everything ends cleanly. But I think we've got a trail for the next episode after it's finished. There's a trail for the next episode planned but I haven't read that script deliberately. I vaguely know what's going on but I haven't seen it so I don't know what's in that I'm afraid."

Will you be revealing the title of the next special in the credits for this one?
"They might well do, yeah. I don't know to be honest, I honestly don't know what it's called. I don't know what Russell's feeling on that is or whether he wants to keep it secret. They'll probably reveal that on the day but if not it will come out fairly shortly afterwards."

This was your final episode with David – was it a sad occasion?
"Well it was sad and not sad really. It was only really on the last day we were like 'oh I wonder if this is our last time together'. Then the way filming ends – it ends but then there's ADR and then there's pickups. Also who knows, I might be needed to do little bits and bobs, and there's a promo that I'm doing later with them. So it was hard to know when the last day was with David – and I'll be working with David a lot in the future, and Russell and Julie as well."

Have you heard anything about being involved with season five? When does that get locked in?
"Well, the scripting and all that stuff is underway now, so they're very much gearing up. I think what they are doing now is hiring a producer – so really the directors will then come afterwards. I have no idea if they'll want me – they might want to use completely new people and also I've done it for a few episodes now so maybe it's time to move on as well, but then I love the show. To be involved in launching the new Doctor would be a new adventure as well, so there's so many factors that come into play. I think they start filming it all in July/August so they're still a fair way away before they'll be deciding on who's going to be doing it and what they want to do. But they're a brilliant team who're taking it over so whatever they do I'm sure it'll be very exciting!"

Doctor Who: Planet of the Dead airs Saturday at 6.45pm on BBC One.

You May Like