Never having been behind the scenes on a television shoot before, I am surprised first of all by how much it is like being backstage in the theatre. The most noticeable differences are the space, which is plentiful rather than meagre, and the newness of everything; though the wooden flats we are behind are functionally no different to those that I have lurked behind for hours in the most unfunded of provincial am-dram, close-to they give off that hot workshop scent of wood that has only recently had its encounter with the circular saw, and has yet to get over the shock.
One studio down, however, the magic of television is a bit more noticeable. In a space the size of a light aircraft hangar, a rooftop has been built at ground level. It’s mock stone over a huge wooden frame, but it’s incredibly realistic, even when you’re stood with your nose nearly touching it. I had imagined that these sorts of things would be somewhat more lashed-up, some minor sins hidden by judicious use of lighting and camera angles, but this artificial tenement seems to me to be in every way the visible reification of absolute perfection. “HD,” explains the First Assistant Director. And Blu-ray, of course. “You can’t get away with cheating these days. People notice.”
People are talking to us as though we have every right to be there, instead of simply being a pair of hangers-on. Even Rachel Talalay, up to her eyes in filming continuity, takes time out to say hello. “You’ve come on a good day,” she says.
So it seems. There appears to be a fight scene in rehearsal. Through the thin wooden walls of the flats, we can hear Peter Capaldi getting biffed about by what we can only assume is some sort of swine.
That we are here at all is down to the merest stroke of chance. A convoluted friends-of-friends process by which we have ended up being invited to the set by the Doctor’s current companion, Mr Matt Lucas. The lesson is: be nice to everyone, because friendship has an abundance of methods for repaying itself.
Since the fight scene doesn’t involve Missy directly, Matt takes us round to meet Michelle Gomez while the rehearsal is going on. She takes us aside to have a photo taken, and one of us – I won’t say which – disgraces herself by tripping over the handle of a wagon that has carelessly been left lying around exactly where it should be. “Careful!” chides Michelle, “Are you OK? Did you hurt yourself?” She speaks with a solicitude that seems odd coming from the mouth of Sue White, let alone the Master. Once again we are reminded of the folly of associating a person with their roles, although since she is in full costume and makeup as Missy, it’s perhaps an understandable mistake on this occasion.
As we head back towards the current set, we walk past a Mondasian Cyberman that is having its face adjusted. “Hello,” it chirps as we walk past. “Urk!” I say, with dazzling repartee. The new masks are totally opaque, even down to the eye-lenses and mouth-slit, and it is impossible to see anything of the actor underneath. As a result it’s easy to forget that there’s anyone in there at all. Thank heavens the unknown monster-maker within chose to startle me by speaking instead of grabbing my arm, because otherwise an unscheduled trip to Wardrobe might have been required. Erica is unbothered, giving the scary metallic bastard a nod and a sparkling “Hi there!”, reconfirming her position as the hard man of our marriage.
That’s not the only startling brush with a classic baddie that is scheduled for this trip. This time, rather than passing the set where the struggle is being rehearsed, Matt leads us in through the double (mock) hospital doors. The sight that greets us is so unexpected that at first it simply doesn’t register at all. Mr Capaldi has paused to discuss his fisticuffs sequence with fellow combatant, John Simm. They seem pleased with their efforts.
The penny drops, and then probably my jaw also. They’ve got John Simm back to reprise his role as the Master.
The penny drops further, this time all the way to the floor, where it spins for a second with a tinkling noise. Oh my word. We’re privy to the filming of something truly special; a first in Doctor Who history. There has never, ever, been a multiple-Masters story before, and here we are, on the set, watching it getting worked out for the screen.
Simm is looking good. He has grown the traditional evil goatee beard (we didn’t see a wife) and is dressed more in the style of Delgado’s Master. As with Pertwee, the sartorial style of this version works well with Capaldi’s Doctor and his elegant choice of clothes, reinforcing the visual sense that the Master is the Doctor’s “dark half” just as Saxon’s black suit contrasted with the Tenth Doctor’s jazzy pinstripe number.
Returning backstage we find Rachel Talalay and her First AD comparing today’s screens with yesterday’s second unit footage. They are bemoaning the Mondasian facemask’s tendency to work loose at the neck joint, piling up under the chin like fat under…my chin. “It’s a fine line”, observes one of the members of the huddle, “between really scary face and…”
He casts a glance towards us and tails off. Perhaps it is only in my imagination that he was about to say “gimp mask”. Perhaps he was merely looking at my various chins. “No doubt that’s why they got rid of them the first time round,” he concludes, and Talalaly nods absently, absorbed in comparing the second unit rushes on her iPad to the new footage displayed on the backstage monitor, conspiring with her First AD over continuity. We’ve got chairs in pride of place, right in front of the monitors, at the head of about five rows of camp-chair seats. We thought this was a bit unfair on the others, who have been here since earlier than us, until we worked out that we’re the only visitors present; everyone else milling around and chatting are crew members, waiting only for the call for make-up or wardrobe fixes to spring into dynamic action. As we wait there is a call for a touch-up of Michelle Gomez’s lip-gloss; a scant five minutes later, the wardrobe staffer has finally found her bag and stood up, just in time for the call to be relayed that Michelle has changed her mind and just wants to get on with the damn thing.
All this time the directors have been discussing a close-up shot of a the Mondasian whom, for reasons best known to themselves, they refer to us CyberBill. Later on Matt will apologise to us, quite needlessly considering all the wonderful things we have seen today, because we were unable to meet Pearl Mackie as she was not in for filming today. On the drive home, two plus two will connect, and another little story moment is added to our collection of treasured, heavily-embargoed secrets. We can’t talk about any of this until July for fear of spoiling the surprises, so five months of being very careful not to consume gob-loosening quantities of alcohol beckon. A price worth paying.
A signal from Matt, still not involved in the fighting. Rehearsals are over and they are setting up to film some takes. We are waved over to another part of the set, there to meet another member of the cast.
Peter Capaldi is taller than you expect, which for a man with such imposing screen presence is odd. Maybe I’ve overcompensated for the screen presence. His smile is the same as the Doctor’s smile. “Would you like to take some photos?” he asks once the introductions are done. Before we get halfway through expressing our desire to do so, he has another question. “Would you rather do it on the TARDIS?”
This is surely the situation for which the word “squee” was invented.
Capaldi strides through the backlot with Matt and us in tow. He and Matt trade words with the crew we pass; everyone is hailed by name and the camaraderie is unmistakeable. The runner who accompanies us, Lauren, tells us that she started off working in the Doctor Who Exhibition and that showing newbies the TARDIS for the first time is still her favourite part of the job. You can tell from her ready smile that she is nearly as excited for us as we are for ourselves.
Matt has already explained to us that when Steven Moffat took the reins he insisted that his TARDIS interior be a 360° set, completely enclosed, unlike the old 270° TARDIS of Christopher Eccleston’s day. Sections can be pulled out to allow camera access. On the ceiling, the three rotating circles sit idle; I had assumed they were CGI, but no, they exist. Apparently they even rotate; Matt says they make so much noise in doing so that a lot of the dialogue has to be dubbed on afterwards for those scenes.
Peter Capaldi is instantly at home. Crossing to the console, he shows off his technology. “This,” he proclaims, holding aloft a two-foot monitor screen with big handles and an inch-thick fibreoptic cable, “is my iPad!” The TARDIS isn’t set for continuity, so we all get to have a go. I want to pull the slam handle he uses in Day of the Doctor but – echoes of TARDISes past – can’t quite overcome the fear that I might break it clean off.
We tell Peter that we’ll be sorry to see him go. “It’s sweet of you to say so, but there’s still lots to do yet!” Indeed there is; as we are led back to the set, past a golden Ice Warrior in a skip, Capaldi is greeted by another set of guests waiting to be Doctored. This is a family including a girl of about ten, who looks at him with an air of awe and wonder highly suitable to the occasion. I hope she plucked up the nerve to pull the slam handle.
On our way out there’s one last treat in store for us. We are introduced to John Simm, who is hugely affable and immediately takes us aside for a photo. He is determined that this time, at last, he will beat the Doctor. “I think the beard might edge it,” he jokes, stroking his Delgado goatee.
Finally we watch the fight sequence being filmed. It takes forever. Multiple takes of the fight itself are only the start of it; there are takes of Missy’s reactions, takes of Simm’s reactions, takes of CyberBill’s reactions – a whole morning has gone filming this fight scene, which will amount to perhaps twenty seconds of screen time. No wonder schedules are so infamously tight.
Time to go and let the professionals get on with their work. Matt bids us goodbye and – almost absurdly – thanks us for coming. We can’t keep our security passes as souvenirs, but we have another chat with Lauren on the way out. Apparently her other half is the mummy from Mummy on the Orient Express. I experience a moment of quite ridiculous contentment for her, on the basis that her boyfriend was in one of Capaldi’s best episodes to date. Objectively speaking, that might not actually be what she first saw in him.
Past the lovely security guard, who took our photos for the security passes while explaining that if we stand in the wrong place the camera would give us haloes. “People wind up looking like angels,” he’d said. We’re certainly on cloud nine when we leave.