One on One with Caroline Skinner

Since its relaunch in 2005, Doctor Who has grown increasingly ambitious. With Steven Moffat at the helm, episodes have felt like mini-movies, with a grand scale, dazzling special effects and a variety of beautiful locales. In the last two seasons, the show has even made its way across the pond to America. The fifth episode of the seventh season, “The Angels Take Manhattan,” which was filmed in New York City, will give a grand sendoff of The Doctor’s two current companions, Amy and Rory.

Caroline Skinner is the executive producer of Doctor Who, which means it’s her job to make showrunner Steven Moffat’s visions a reality. We caught up with Skinner at BBC America’s offices before the premiere of “Asylum of the Daleks” at Ziegfeld Theater in New York City to talk about what the first-year executive producer has planned for the future.

What was the genesis of the Pond Life five-part web series?

Steven [Moffat] and I really wanted to do a piece – and quite a substantial piece – about the Ponds and their relationship with The Doctor, kind of in general, but also in between series six and series seven. The exciting thing about this roll of episodes is that you’ve got Amy and Rory as a married couple and The Doctor popping in and out of their life, taking them on adventures and then dropping them off again.

We wanted something that would set up that context and really let people get an emotional sense of their relationship and also see what The Doctor popping in and out meant to them from their point of view. So you’ve almost got him popping up like their crazy little child and throwing everything up in the air in that sort of a way.

So we were working at the time with brilliant writer Chris Chibnall, who’s done two out of these five episodes, and he has just the most beautiful way of writing for Amy and Rory. So we asked him to put pen to paper and that’s what we got. And it’s wonderful.

This is your first season as executive producer on Doctor Who. With your experience in the business, what are you able to bring to an established show like Who?

A huge amount of passion for it. I’ve always, always loved Doctor Who. And massive enthusiasm and massive ambition to make it the biggest series ever, alongside Steven. I saw down on day minus-one, just before I got the job, and he pitched me what he wanted to do with this series and what direction he wanted to take it. Miraculously, in the space of about 15 minutes, he pitched me every single one of the 13 story ideas, at which point I just sort of sat there going, “Wow, that’s quite a lot.”

IT was just so exciting to hear, to be honest. What I wanted to do was bring my experience and my enthusiasm to the show to try and make those ideas come to life in the most ambitious way that we could.

How much were you influenced by previous executive producers on Doctor Who?

I’ve always watched Doctor Who. I’ve watched practically every episode of Doctor Who. Of course I did. I think that in particular Steven’s last two series set the bar really, really high. Last year in particular with the American episodes they shot in Utah and that enormous serial arc. What a fantastic final episode – how did they tie all of that up in 45 minutes? I don’t know.

I watched it with huge admiration and enormous passion because I love the show and I love the work that everybody’s done on it. I think that what we’ve been trying to do this year is to take the bar that was already set really high and the love that everybody’s already made the show with and then to raise it even higher if we can do it.

What was the most challenging episode to bring together?

I think probably the most challenging and the most wonderful and rewarding, for want of a better word, was the last episode, which is “The Angels Take Manhattan.” Karen [Gillan] and Arthur [Darvill]’s final story, which we shot a fair proportion of right here in New York. It was challenging for so many reasons.

Obviously, from Steven’s point of view, he’s written the most beautiful and heartbreaking exit story for them and there are some scenes in there which are just so absolutely emotional. But that is not an easy thing to do. Particularly, I think for Arthur, Karen and Matt [Smith], who have been working on the show very closely for a very long time. It’s an enormous thing to change companions and you absolutely have to get that story right.

Then, at the same time, we wanted to make the New York setting as resonant as we possible could do and to really make it feel down to every detail that we’d set it all over here. So we did. We came here for a good week and we worked incredibly hard to get out and about to every New York landmark we possibly could do. But more so, to really create that sort of noirish atmosphere that shooting in this city’s so famous for to make the story feel as beautiful as it possibly could be.

Were you surprised by the fan reaction in New York?

Yes. When we shoot in the UK, you’ll get a few people following us around and the fanbase absolutely adores the show. But in my career, I’ve never known anything like [the reaction in New York]. I don’t know that anybody had prepared themselves for what shooting in the streets of New York would be like, least of all the team of producers from New York who are fixers over here who have done NYPD Blue and Sex and the City and various movies.

They’d literally be like, “Caroline, I don’t mean to be funny, but you’ve got twice as many people as Julia Roberts out here.”

It’s just phenomenal and just a wonderful experience. I remember when we were filming in Central Park, there were probably about 20 or 30 people there first thing in the morning. Over the course of the day, the crowds just grew and grew and grew and we were filming by a fountain toward the end of the day and you could hardly keep people back. The sheer love and the passion for the show was just sort of there in the air. It made the entire experience feel incredibly special. I think that’s one of the things that’s so special about working on this show at the best of times is the reaction you get from the fans, but particularly in this city, it was absolutely mind blowing.

There are reportedly big plans in the works for the show’s 50th anniversary. When will you be able to say which cast members are appearing in the special and who would you like to see appear in it?

I don’t know who’s going to appear. We’ve got an awful lot of work to do before we commit to anything on the anniversary. What I can say is that next year is going to be the biggest year of Doctor Who, bar none. I know that for a fact.

I spend a lot of my time in strange, underground rooms with senior people at the BBC talking about what we might do and not just on television, but also in terms of the other events that we do. Obviously, Doctor Who has a huge number of live events and international events. So there are many plans afoot, which are all wonderful and are all absolutely top secret. I’m not going to tell you anything about them.

The thing that I’m floored about at the moment is having pretty much finished these five episodes that we’re about to put out from September 1, we’re also working – we’re shooting, we have to be shooting the Christmas special at the moment because what could be more silly? And we’re in the middle of the run of eight episodes that we’re filming with Matt and Jenna[-Louise Coleman] that we’re shooting for next year. And those stories are brilliant to watch and absolutely enormous.

I think that before we even get to the 50th anniversary, we’ve got a big run of Doctor Who coming up in 2013.

Reading the scripts, are you ever tempted to go back to the BBC to ask for more money or do you just find ways to work within the budgets you are given?

We are treated very nicely by the BBC, but I think that on any show that you make, however big or small the budget is, you always want more. The thing that we do on Doctor Who as much as we possibly can do is to let the writers write exactly what they want and then try not to cut anything.

What you tend to get with a Doctor Who script is a script that if in terms of the production challenges within it – be it location, be it special effects, be it sheer story-based ambition – if it doesn’t scare you when you get the script from that point of view, as well as the monsters, then none of us are working hard enough.

I’ve got the most brilliant team of producers and heads of department. Marcus Wilson, who’s our series producer, has the most fantastic imagination about how to bring things to life. So for instance, when we were shooting “Asylum of the Daleks,” and I’m really proud of the production values in that, we were about to go to Spain to shoot the Western episode and Marcus had been reading a book about Star Wars, which inspired him to think, “There’s some scenes in Snowy Mountain here.”

We’ve been talking about filming them against whites in the studios and he went, “You know what? Sierra Nevada’s not that far up the road, why don’t we just go and do it for real? It will cost a bit more maybe, or maybe it won’t.”

I think that there’s no one on my team who isn’t so passionate about making the show as big as possible that they won’t go the extra mile to try to make the biggest things happen for the money. I think that this show in particular, the production values have been higher than ever.

[Editor’s Note – We were one of 10 people in a small roundtable discussion with Caroline Skinner. The questions above are a combination of those asked by HoboTrashcan and the other media members.]

Interviewed by Joel Murphy. Photos taken by Gary He for BBC America. “Asylum of the Daleks” airs this Saturday at 9 p.m. on BBC America. Check back tomorrow for an interview with executive producer Caroline Skinner.

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