Saturday, October 18, 2014

Farewell To The Tardis

In early 2004 my agent managed to get me a meeting. They were rebooting Doctor Who apparently, had read a spec script of mine and wanted to chat.

While I was waiting in reception at the BBC, Christopher Eccleston wandered in and stood talking to one of the receptionists. He hadn't yet been announced as the new Doctor but I'd loved him in Cracker and considered saying something to that effect.

I weighed it up for a long minute, but in the end did nothing, bottling it and rationalising that he was probably sick of exchanges like that.

I was eventually called into my Doctor Who meeting. I didn't get the gig.

Ten years and three regenerations later I finally cracked it. I got asked to write for Doctor Who. Twice.

I've had an absolute ball writing these scripts. If you enjoy watching them half as much as I did writing them, then I've plainly done something wrong. And at every step of the way I've had the support of a wonderful team of smart people pointing out when I'm not. Smart, that is. Which is quite handy, because it turns out that's fairly often.

And astride it all like the Who colossus that he is, Mr Steven Moffat, whose notes have fixed so many glaring errors and added so many cool aspects to the episodes that someone should really put him in charge of the show or something. No seriously. He's that good.

So I hope you've enjoyed my two week tenure at the helm of the Tardis. Or as Steven refers to it: 'The Jamie Mathieson era.' Thanks to everyone both in front of and behind the camera for making my words come alive.

It's been a blast.

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The Boneless


It was one of those ideas that I was surprised Who hadn't done before. Flat monsters that steal dimension. But no. It was just sitting there, waiting for me.

It has antecedents of course. I remember vividly the book Flat Stanley from my childhood. The jolly tale of a small boy who is flattened by a posterboard and then gets into all kinds of scrapes by sliding under doors or being posted back home in an envelope. The doomed cleaner Stan in Flatline is named in his memory. There is also the novella Flatland, (1888) a social satire about a two dimensional world. The Abbott estate, where Flatline takes place is named in memory of the author, Edwin Abbott Abbott. And then of course there is Roadrunner, with Wil E Coyote painting his fake tunnels on rock dead-ends, which the Roadrunner then impossibly runs through. I stopped just short of naming a character Coyote.

I had to get the gig first of course. I arrived at the pitch meeting with four episode outlines and drawings of four fresh monsters (my years at art college finally paying off). My first drawing of the Boneless accompanies this post. I also included a print-out of Holbein's stretched skull, a version of which I envisaged as at least one of the creatures 'kills'. (Pictured below)

And joy of joys, Steven liked it. He approved the writing of an outline and the process began.

One pitfall I tried very hard to avoid was the idea that these kills could be seen as silly. If we weren't careful the flattening of people could cause giggles rather than gasps. Every draft I wrote, I stressed the crunch of bone and the screams that should accompany each flattening. All insurance against the death of horror: mockery. Oh of course, there would be room for jokes. But never about the monster. Never about the death.

From the beginning the Boneless were silent and from another dimension. Anything I could do to make it difficult for The Doctor. He doesn't recognise them, neither does the Tardis. He can't talk to them. He doesn't know what they want. They're just killing.

The idea that he hopes the killings are accidental was a fairly early addition. It struck me as a very Doctorish attitude to a first contact situation. Filled with hope that maybe this time things will be different.

The move from 2D to 3D went through a few permutations. In early drafts the Boneless became 3D by wrapping themselves around the living like anacondas, snapping the necks of their victims before driving them around like puppeteers, their faces a smeared distortion of humanity. This is the version pictured. But this was soon deemed a little too grim for teatime on a Saturday.

Ultimately I think we succeeded in making a potentially laughable two dimensional flattening alien credible and scary. I don't think anyone is laughing at the Boneless. And if they are laughing, I hope it's a nervous strained laugh as they try not to think too hard about that slithering movement in the corner of their eye. They are very good at hiding, after all...

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Tiny Tardis of TERROR


'It's going to be have to be a Doctor light episode. But so was Blink. Which some people seemed to like.' I'm paraphrasing from memory, but that was the gist of the direction from Steven. The implication being, this doesn't have to be a limitation. If you're smart, you could make it a strength.

I was two drafts into Flatline, which up until this point had been a conventional Doctor Who episode in many ways; the Doctor and Clara running around together and try to figure out exactly how to defeat the Boneless, the flat 'aliens of the week'. Only the version of the Doctor I'd been writing had been a generic vaguely Matt Smith version. Capaldi had only just been announced and this was supposed to be the meeting where I discovered Steven's vision for the new Doctor's character. And now this bombshell.

The Doctor needed to be in the same location for most of the episode. This would give Peter less shooting days and free up the schedule. Trapping him in the Tardis was the obvious choice. But how to make it seem a logical organic part of the story?

The five foot version of the Tardis was already in the script. 'Couldn't we just keep that process going? Shrink it right down, make the doors too small for him to get out?' There and then in the meeting I pitched the idea.

A tiny Tardis, but only on the outside. That could be kind of cool, couldn't it? We started riffing on the possibilities; the Doctor's arm reaching out, passing long things out like a Tommy Cooper gag, poking people in the eye. The mad thing was that no-one had done it before. In hindsight it seems obvious. The exterior has always been smaller on the outside. In this episode, we just keep going.

The next part of the puzzle came from Steven. I'm sure I would have figured it out given time, but he's just so damn quick. 'I'll go you one better.' he said. 'Clara carries the Tardis around in her bag for the whole episode.'

My smile froze. Of course she does Steven. And every time anyone compliments me on the idea I will have to hold my tongue and grind my teeth knowing you came up with the cherry on the cake. Damn your Bafta winning eyes.

Draft three was a lot of work. I had to completely rewrite the episode from scratch incorporating a whole new character for the Doctor based upon 12's new direction, figure out exactly how Clara would behave without him (Doctor Clara! Of course!) and make sure the logic of the tiny Tardis all held together.

A particular pain in the arse was the fact that anything the Doctor said to Clara couldn't be heard by other characters, which meant that repetition had to be guarded against. But on the plus side, he could insult with impunity. I think it was a three week rewrite, because we all knew it was a big one. I wrote every day until I got a headache. Which was most days.

An idea I came up with while writing was the Doctor dragging the Tardis along like the Addams Family Thing, which wasn't in any outlines or discussions and was a nice surprise for everyone when I handed in the script.

I think the rewrite was well received. A week or so after I handed it in I got a phone call: 'How would you like to write another one?' Is this a trick question? 'Steven's already got a title in mind. 'Mummy On The Orient Express.'...

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Sunday, October 12, 2014

I Was A Teenage Computer

At the table read through for 'Mummy On The Orient Express', several of the actors were unavailable due to prior commitments. This meant that various staff members read in for some of the roles. I was offered Quell or Moorhouse and declined.

I mean come on. The last time I acted was in a school play. (Okay, so I was a stand up for six years, which is kind of acting, in that every night you have to act as if you just thought of your material, rather than the truth, which is that you've repeated it so many times over the years that it's been reduced to a series of syllables without meaning that somehow get laughs.) But actually acting? Opposite The Doctor and Clara? Unthinkable.

Ten minutes before the start, as we all settled into our seats someone realised that the role of Gus the computer wasn't cast. I was asked - did I want to cover it for the read through?

I said yes impulsively.

This wasn't really acting. Not really. All I had to do was read the lines in as impassive a voice as I could muster, like a plane safety announcer.

So I did. And it was fun.

After the read through the Director and Producer for the episode complimented me on my 'performance' and asked me if I could record the lines for Gus to be played on set. I was flattered and said that I would.

A few days later, I sat in front of my laptop and tried to do just that. And I hated my nasal blocked sounding voice so much I abandoned the project for about a week. At which point I reasoned that, what the hell, I should do it anyway. Everyone hates the sound of their own voice, don't they? This was a chance to be heard on set during the recording of my first Doctor Who episode. I would there with them all in spirit, the ghost in the machine... and other pretentious guff.

So I rattled through recording all the lines in about half an hour and e-mailed them in. I didn't even have a proper mic. This was through the tiny hole in the side of my laptop.

And then I started getting rushes through. With my voice as the computer. Which was incredibly cool. I even made it as far as full assemblies of the episode before some nefarious pretender called John Sessions was employed to do it 'properly', whatever that means (joking of course. He is brilliant) But for a few months there, I was the voice of Gus, my vaguely brummy twang echoing through the train.

I would never say 'Original and best'. That's for history to judge.

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Saturday, October 11, 2014

Building A Better Mummy

So the way it worked was this: Steven Moffat gave me the title: 'Mummy On The Orient Express' and the idea that this episode would be set in space. I went away and had a think about it. And what I thought was this:

A monster on a train in space is a problem. Put bluntly: there's nowhere to hide it. As soon as someone is found dead by monster, people will search the train. So where is it hiding? Is it someone's alter ego, like Jekyll and Hyde? Is it fading in and out of visibility? Is it a ghost? Does it assemble and disassemble into snake like bandages? Do we set up arbitrary locking points along the train? Does it walk outside the train in the cold of space?

All the possible solutions I thought of felt a little meh, or made the passengers and the Doctor seem dumb for not finding the mummy's hiding place in five seconds flat.

While tinkering with all the various permutations of visibility and oblivious passengers, I started thinking about what scares you as a child. Monsters, obviously. Under the bed, in the closet, in the shadows. But also the idea that when you run and tell your parents about the monster, they tell you that there's nothing to be scared of. The monster isn't real. You were imagining things. But you know you weren't. And your parents denial of your monster makes it even scarier. You are the only one who can see it. You must face it alone.

That idea was in place in the first two page rambling I submitted on the episode. The monster that can only be seen by the intended victim. Other elements of the Foretold mythos came and went. Some of them I hesitate to mention as they may find their way into the DNA of future monsters (remember kids, use every part of the buffalo) but certain off cuts are fun to disclose.

There was a beat where the Doctor figured out how to reveal the Foretold, pulled a switch... and twenty Foretold faded in.

Oops.

There was the realisation that the only way to beat the Foretold was to crash the train into a planet full of things worse than them. Which kind of weakened the Foretold's scary factor a little.

There was Clara seeing the Foretold, and hiding inside the sarcophagus, which was then revealed as actually being a Foretold making machine, wrapping her in bandages...

All fell away over time, simplifying the narrative. The set piece of Quell's death was a favourite and we realised that the timed deaths should be the crown jewels of the episode, so more were added, of course culminating with The Doctor finally seeing and beating the Foretold.

The mummy to me has always seemed a bit of a poor cousin to the much cooler vampire, werewolf and zombie, but if we've done our job well this episode may go some way to redress that.

I hope you enjoyed it.

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The Mummy's First Victim

There are only a few definite landmarks in my development as a writer. The Singing Detective is a big one. I was sixteen years old when I saw it and it's deft weaving of one man's memories and fantasies rearranged the furniture in my head like an over enthused lifestyle guru. It was funny, trippy, fiercely intelligent and incredibly accomplished. It's impact was seismic and I am not alone in this assessment. Many writers and creatives of my generation quote it as a formative influence, (including Paul Wilmshurst, the director of 'Mummy on the Orient Express').

And now, twenty eight years after it aired, I am putting words in the mouth of one of it's actors. Her name is Janet Henfrey and in The Singing Detective she played the formidable school teacher that so terrified the young Philip Marlow. She was marvelous then and she is marvelous now, playing Maisie's grandmother, the Mummy's first victim. 

I made a point of approaching her at the readthrough to tell her how happy I was that she had the role and how much The Singing Detective had meant to me. I also made sure I was there on set on the day her scene was filmed. I stopped just short of saying that I was really happy that she was my first Doctor Who kill. I didn't want to sound too much like a serial killer. But the link to my personal journey as a writer that she represents really makes me happy. Her character dies in style and really sets the tone for both the monster and the episode.

Bravo, Janet, bravo.

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Thursday, June 26, 2014

I Am Writing TWO Episodes Of Doctor Who


So... they quite liked the first script I delivered and asked me if I'd like to write another. They quite liked that one too. Then they decided to put them next to each other in the schedule as episodes 8 and 9.

No pressure.

Obviously I can't say any more than that, I have checked and I am allowed to say YIPPEEE. Great honour times two. Thanks to everyone who voted for me. That's how it works isn't it?

I should also comment on the attached photo. It was taken during a Who story meeting in a room at the Beeb that just happened to have an old Tardis in the corner. That sort of thing happens there. I commented on it and was told it was a 'real' one used for filming during the Davison era. Mr Moffat mentioned rather glumly that the doors were locked. They'd already tried opening them...

I craned my neck and mentioned that it had no back...

Ten seconds later we were all straining to pull it away from the wall like removal men and giggling like children. I unlocked the door and the posing began.

(As a side note, the t-shirt I am wearing is Johnny Alpha, Strontium Dog, from the pages of 2000AD, drawn by the inimitable Ezquerra. 2000AD REPRESENT!)

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Friday, May 16, 2014

Frank Skinner In My Episode Of Doctor Who


So, Frank Skinner is in my episode. Which is very cool.

I was a stand up for a living for quite a few years. When I was trying to figure out how to do it in 1996, his first two stand up videos were part of my boot camp, so there is a nice synchronicity for me to be writing lines for him to deliver nearly twenty years later.

I haven't yet met him, but I'm sure that when I do, no doubt on set, he'll say something nice like: 'I could tell you were a stand up. From the rhythm of the jokes.' and I'll say something self deprecating, and he'll say 'No, really. It's obvious. You can tell when someone knows funny. And you know funny. Your stage time really shows.' and I'll say something about that being high praise indeed coming from him.

And we'll chat some more, like old friends meeting again, our time on the circuit giving us a shared language, a common bond. Soldiers from different fronts of the same war. The war that every comedian fights – the war on sad faces.

And when we finally part, we will be firm friends, with plans in place to meet again and maybe work on something together. But then the number he gave me doesn't work and when I try to reach him through his agent I am given the runaround. But a friend of a friend knows where he lives so I go and visit him and he explains that he gave me an old number. And we laugh about the silly mistake and we hold hands and spin around in a circle laughing until we get dizzy.

Yeah. I imagine that's pretty much how it will go.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

I Am Writing For Doctor Who

So for all the people who googled me solely because of that fact, and ended up here, this is what you need to know;

I am forty four this year, which means that I was five when the Tom Baker Doctor Who adventure Terror of the Zygons first aired. I have a memory of it being utterly terrifying. And strange. And wonderful. And too much for my tiny mind to deal with.

Out of pure fear, I then decided to avoid Doctor Who for the rest of my childhood. I don't remember much else clearly from the Tom Baker years. I vividly remember literally hiding behind the sofa when the Daleks came on screen and still being able to see them in my head.

I remember Weetabix releasing tie-in Doctor Who cereal boxes and cards when I was seven. Their images are burned indelibly into my mind. They evoke childhood to me in a way that shows of the time never can. In many ways, my Doctor will always be two dimensional and made of cardboard (a fact I truly hope is not reflected in my work on the show).

Fast forward to 2014. I am writing for the British institution, children's nightmare factory and infinite narrative sand-pit that is Doctor Who. Which is an honour. And a joy. And a huge pressure. And very, very cool. And a chance to shine in front of the biggest audience I have ever had. (Or fall flat on my face, but let's not dwell on that.)

And I am going to do my damnedest to knock it out of the park. (I mean come on, if you don't go into writing anything with that as your aim, you're not a writer. With Doctor Who, that goes doubly so.)

A nice bonus of all of this is that I am now the coolest Uncle in the world. To not only my niece and nephew, but also to a bunch of my friend's kids. And I can finally show them something I've written because it doesn't have any swearsees or disemboweling.

Okay, maybe a little...

I am huge nerd in many ways but have never really succumbed to buying action figures. I told myself that if I got the Who gig, I'd buy me a couple. Just a couple.

As I sit writing this, on my desk I have two Tardises, a Tom Baker, a Tennant, four daleks, a Davros and a Matt Smith.

They're clustered around my keyboard. Totemic artefacts of an ancient and wonderful phenomenon with a voracious appetite for stories. And they watch me type. Awaiting the arrival of new monsters, worlds and adventures.

And I open my screenwriting program and I type: THE DOCTOR for the very first time. And I smile. And I put words in his mouth. And I make him run. And think. And fight. And the action figures look on, as another piece of their long never-ending history slots into place.

I love my job.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Alt Is Coming

“There are thousands of worlds out there. All with a version of you and a version of me. And someone is trying to kill us. All of us…”

Imagine: that mate you dumped months ago because he's a tool, rings you out of the blue and asks for help. You go round and he's tripping. Banging on about parallel worlds and killers with swords and you're not really listening to be honest. And the next thing you know the world's changed. Literally changed. Your girlfriend, who was kind of the love of your life, no longer even recognises you. Dead relatives are suddenly alive again. And someone who looks just like you is living your life. Badly.

E4 has commissioned a brand new drama pilot ALT, (1X60’), written by Jamie Mathieson (Being Human, FAQ About Time Travel) and directed by Ben Caron (Derren Brown, My Mad Fat Diary, Tommy Cooper), which will TX on E4 in Spring 2014.

ALT stars Gethin Anthony (Game of Thrones) as 24-year-old pragmatic everyman Danny who’s about to move in with his girlfriend Suzy, played by Roxanne McKee (Game of Thrones, Hollyoaks). Craig Roberts (Submarine) also stars as Danny’s stoner and waster ex-best friend Milo. Suddenly finding themselves transported to a parallel universe where they encounter different versions of themselves, the pair soon realise dangerous assassins played by Jason Flemyng (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, X Men: First Class) and Arsher Ali (Four Lions) seem intent on hunting them down and killing them. With Danny desperate to get back to his own Suzy before it’s too late and he loses her forever, they embark on a series of darkly comic and dangerous adventures in an effort to get back home.

Warning: ALT may contain; swords, guns, doubles, corpses, bickering, bitterness, broken friendship, love, drugs, sex and quantum physics.

Commissioner Beth Willis says “ALT is a mind-bendingly funny pilot for E4 from the pen of Jamie Mathieson and directed by the brilliant Ben Caron. Milo and Danny are wonderful and useless and loveable. Expect the unexpected – and lots of laughs.”

“We’re so pleased to bring Jamie’s hugely inventive and hilarious world to life, and are lucky to have such an incredibly talented creative team and cast – all of whom have given us a bold new show full of fun, wit and adventure” says Damien Timmer from Mammoth Screen.

Commissioned by Beth Willis, and made by Mammoth Screen for E4, ALT goes into production in January 2014 and will TX on E4 later in the Spring. Toby Welch (Skins) is Producer and Executive Producers are Rebecca Keane, Preethi Mavahalli and Damien Timmer.