It’s late-morning on 18th March 2015 and I’ve already rescued a butterfly from a Dalek so the day is going well.
After liberating the lepidoptera that was so cruelly trapped in the Doctor Who Experience, I made the short walk to the impressively swirly blue-grey building that is BBC Roath Lock Studios. I’ve been kindly invited down by Ed Russell to take a look behind the scenes on The Magician’s Apprentice / The Witch’s Familiar and, if all goes well, write something up for Doctor Who Magazine.
As I wait for Ed, I can’t help but feel a little pleased to see my artwork on the canteen wall. Or, to be more accurate, Lee Binding’s artwork is on the wall which incorporates some elements of mine.
Ed comes to collect me and we and head off down one of the corridors which skirt the perimeter of the huge studio building. The view will be familiar to anyone who had seen The Fiveish Doctors.
We enter through one of the side doors and step into a space the size of an aircraft hangar. A mish-mash of wooden exo-skeletons holds up the sets in the centre. The walls around the edge have rope-lights, looking strangely Christmassy.
Dominating the corner of the cavernous space is a vast bowl shape: The TARDIS control room. We pass around the outside of the structure and into the first set area. I am awe-struck to see a metallic archway, straight from 1963. It has the perfect geometry of a door from the first Dalek story.
But the fun has barely started as I step through the arch into a small intersection where, to my left I see another arch, and another and another … and on they go. It’s like I’m in (or on) The Dead Planet!
Down this amazing corridor we walk, and round the corner. As we do so, the finish of the walls changes and becomes grubbier and darker.
“This is the sick bay,” explains Ed as we enter a murky room with an empty dais. Above it, there is a mass of dangling cables. “And that’s where Davros sits.”
The walls here are dirty. Over in the corner is a bench with equipment, where I know the Doctor will work his magic at the end of the story.
Moving out of the room we are confronted by a bronze Dalek which sits de-activated in a doorway.
“I’m afraid the TARDIS isn’t lit,” explains Ed as we go up the stairs and into the eerie time machine. We inspect the console and check out the new-look walls which now feature round things.
After I’ve explored the bookshelves of the upper level and unexpectedly found boxing gloves and a collection of crystal balls, we exit the TARDIS and nearly bump straight into Jenna Coleman. We continue round the corner and onto the set where we find Michelle Gomez in a large area of green screen.
We pick our way past the artists and the stack of equipment into the gigantic main studio. The green-screen section has been set up at one end of an incredibly impressive set. Huge, sloping buttresses cross over head, the nearest of which is broken at one end, and a pile of fake rubble lies beneath it.
The floor is covered in debris from the story’s messy climax and a series of monitors has been set up for the green screen recording, because the control room is no longer in use for shooting.
To the right is a large stage with a door at the back that has inter-locking teeth. Wheel motifs are mounted around the back of the stage. At the far end is another of those wonderful Skaro doors.
This gigantic control room is full of Daleks of every colour and design. To my left, shoved against the wall, are more than half a dozen bronze props, some with their tops off. Amongst them is an all-red movie Dalek.
On a dais in the middle is the red and gold supreme, with its top missing. And beyond, at the back, a control area straight from the 1960s. A symphony of grey and blue Daleks.
To the left a Chase-style prop with its grey bits painted very blue. Directly in front, I recognise Andrew Beech’s Dead Planet prop. In the far left corner, a 60s Dalek stands at a computer panel and to the right is a Dead Planet prop with a black dome – a brand new design never seen on TV!
The sixties props sit on silver discs in the floor. In amongst them are bronze Daleks dotted about. Up on the stage, a Remembrance Renegade looms, with another bronze Dalek alongside.
We finish making our way to the back of the room, to stand behind the monitors showing the green screen cameras’ view. In walks Jenna, and she joins Michelle.
Quiet is called for and a rehearsal begins for scene 60.
CLARA This doesn't make any sense. MISSY Oh, but it does! The gravity - I said it was like a planet! We’re on a planet! That’s not a space station, it’s a building - the rest of the planet, the whole thing, is invisible.
Jenna gives her lines off camera, and then moves into shot. There is a cut. They go again, recording this time. Then they go again, with the camera pulled back more.
Filming eventually finishes on the scene, and the room starts to clear.
Ed and I tour the set inspecting the props. I am intrigued by the bronze Dalek whose lower collar is gold, like the original from 2005, but this is a replica. We find a fake Dalek Sec in a corner and I explain how different props have different variations in the way they’re built.
We look over one of Andrew Beech’s Dalek and the Renegade which appears to be a This Planet Earth prop. Amidst the bronze casings is a bright red movie Dalek. The whole thing looks too thin. We peek inside the ones with their tops of. A bronze Dalek has M1 written in it, but it isn’t the original. I count 19 Daleks including the strange red movie prop.
A member of the production team comes over and there is some discussion about whether “the chair” needs moving out of sight. We decide to have a little look at it before removal, and we note it has been stripped down for Peter Capaldi to fit in. Curiously, nearby, there is another NSD skirt exactly like that of Davros. A spare perhaps?
I go back for another wander round the TARDIS. I stand on the gantries, inspect the cables on the ground floor and press every button on the console. After a bit of lunch, I meet up with Ed again and we go to watch some more recording.
As we re-enter the studios, the air is thick from the smoke machine and the haze around the Dalek corridors is gothic. A bronze prop stands silently on guard in a corridor as we walk by.
We go round to the back of the set where the crew is huddled around monitors. As I approach, Michelle Gomez appears, and gives me a wicked smile.
We shuffle into place and watch the screens. There is a lot of fuss about a missing chair. A normal chair, thankfully, not that chair. Then Michelle appears in frame and sits down on the floor next to Jenna. She suddenly spreads her legs wide apart. The characters are in a Dalek prison cell. Peter Capaldi appeares briefly in shot. He is wearing a T-shirt and jacket so I assume he isn’t in costume.
The producer, Peter Bennett, comes over for a chat. An enthusiastic and focussed man, who comments on the madness of the never-ending lifestyle of TV production. We chat a little about the demands of the show, of producing new sets from scratch each week, unlike their neighbouring production Casualty which never changes. I saw quite a few injured people and medical staff when I had lunch.
Peter says he’ll be glad to start the next story to get out on location. They have been stuck in the studio for weeks. We discuss the phenomenal impact of the Missy character. On the monitor screen we can see her singing to herself, almost as if in a trance.
Next to where we are standing are two large, angular wooden constructions. It occurs to me that I’m looking at the exterior of the the octagonal model corridor set from Into the Dalek, which was shot using toy Daleks. Next to it is a bowl-shape of the same scale, which I realise is the control room miniature for that same episode. We ask the producer whether these would play any part in The Witch’s Familiar.
“Yeah!” explains Peter. “There’s this scene where we go down through all the layers, so we’ll be whooshing past that, and down and down, into the sewer.”
We sit at the monitor screens as they prepare for another take. A continuity person is frantically checking between screens, looking at Jenna’s hair.
They start to rehearse for a shot, and hush descends. Missy says that being tied up and locked in a cupboard reminds her of the Doctor’s wedding.
“Wedding?” asks Clara, shocked.
The Doctor corrects Missy, saying that she is thinking of the stag night. Then they reminisce about laser slugs.
“We were friends then. What happened?” asks the Doctor, out of view.
Since Peter Capaldi is not dressed smartly like he had been in his début season, I assume he isn’t being recorded at this point.
Someone shouts “Door!” in place of a sound effect and the conversion is interrupted.
I absolutely adore this scene. There would be much hype about the return of Davros but, in my opinion, exploring the nuances of the Doctor’s relationship with the Master is far more interesting. In The Sea Devils The Doctor says that the Master was once a very good friend. We know the Doctor has family so a marriage of some kind should not be too surprising. So, although this isn’t really new information, crystallising those notions in actual dialogue between the characters is quite wonderfully shocking. It’s very exciting to see these scenes.
The cameras roll again and this time Clara says the word “Wedding?” with more bemusement than shock.
They do the scene again.
“Wedding?” asks Clara, very slowly. I wonder which reaction they’ll use.
The scene finishes, Michelle leaves the set and Jenna squats down next to me to talk to a member of the crew. Peter Capaldi is chatting to someone nearby and Nick Briggs starts to set up his modulator at an adjacent table.
We say hello to Nick, whom I had met previously, and we chat about whether or not he’ll be doing any voice work today.
The three of us are awkwardly shoved out of the way as a large chunk of Dalek corridor is wheeled past. Michelle Gomez is having her photo taken with Daleks. It is a surreal place. A hard-working fantasy factory.
Nick kindly agrees to an impromptu interview and we head off to record it. As we pass Michelle Gomez, she is lifting a child out of a New Paradigm Dalek. We leave the studio and I hold the door open for her.
I have a fun, 25-minute chat with Nick about the wonders of this story. Some or all of his lovely quotes will be destined for a feature in Doctor Who Magazine. Eventually he is summoned back to the studio and I have the opportunity to inspect more of the set.
Into the prison we step. Mats have been discreetly put down to save Jenna and Michelle from the hard floor.
We duck beneath three arches. These are symmetrical. The Dalek chamber has vented lights and lots of grubby detail. It is brilliantly in keeping with the simplicity of the 60s without looking cheap. The arches cannot be seen in the camera angles for the prison scenes but, when shot from the opposite direction, this room would double as the place where the Daleks corner Missy at the end of the episode.
Looking at the slender doorway at the side, I wryly comment that they seem to be designed to stop the New Paradigms getting through. It is a marvellously evocative set.
After completing our tour of the prison, we return to the monitoring area where a technician is scrolling through pages of video thumbnails showing the Dalek supreme chatting to Missy. On a live monitor I can see the opened-out bronze Dalek from which Clara would emerge.
Sadly, my time is drawing to a close so we make our way through the production offices towards the exit. In the design department there are people doing exciting set drawings in a CAD package.
So, with my head spinning, I head out of BBC Roath Lock Studios trying to remember every detail to write down as soon as I can. I have a long drive home in which to try to process the astonishing wonders of the day! And then wait months before I can tell anyone about it.
My sincere thanks to the generosity of Ed Russell and the team for a fantastic day.
Gav, 18th March 2015