Doctor Who “Dinosaurs On A Spaceship” Writer Chris Chibnall Interviewed

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The title to next week’s Doctor Who says it all, really, and as returning writer Chris Chibnall reveals, the title was where it all started…

What was the origin of “Dinosaurs On A Spaceship”?

“It just started with the title. I had a meeting with Steven Moffat, and he said, ‘I have just four words to say to you: Dinosaurs On A Spaceship.’ At which point my heart leapt internally, and I tried to look cool.

“I just went quiet for a second. My thought process was, very simply: ‘He can’t mean that. How on Earth could we ever achieve that?’ And at the same time, ‘Fantastic. That’s the best title ever!’

In reality, I just said, ‘Oh yeah, okay, great. I get that. I can see that. I’d love to do that.’ And I went away and came back with a proposal of how we’d do it.”

What were the challenges in bringing a one-line pitch to screen?

“There were two sides to it, one of which was, you know going in that it’s not a Michael Bay budget. It’s a Doctor Who budget. A BBC budget, although a very good one. But you know you can’t do dinosaurs endlessly for 45 minutes, so there has to be a big ‘other’ story going on. That was my job really, to go, ‘Okay, this is the story I want to tell around the dinosaurs, why they’re there and who’s with the Doctor’ and all that kind of stuff.

“Then the other side of it was talking to The Mill – who do the effects – and saying, on a technical and practical level, ‘How can we achieve this?’ Because this should actually be impossible on Doctor Who ’s budget. We should not be able to do this. So, it was also a technical challenge: writing something they could make, but still to deliver on that promise of ‘dinosaurs on a spaceship’. That was an enormous challenge.”

How were the dinosaurs chosen? Was it a case of choosing the usual suspects? Or were they your favourites? Or were they the ones The Mill had on file?

“They all got created from scratch. I went into the meeting thinking, ‘They did Primeval. Fantastic. We’ve got a catalogue.’ And they said, ‘Yeah, we can’t use any of those. They belong to Impossible Pictures.’ Which is, of course, correct and fair enough. So everything has been built from scratch.

“So it was a bit of a catalogue of favourites, to be honest. But also what the story demanded. You want some herbivores, you want some carnivores, you want some big ones, you want some small ones. It was just, really, how many can we do? And what variety? Very difficult to imagine doing it without pterodactyls, for example, because the Doctor running away from pterodactyls… you can’t see that often enough. I don’t know why every episode doesn’t have that in.”

We did have some last year, didn’t we?

“Yeah, there were some at the beginning of ‘The Wedding Of River Song’. I suspect that may be slightly what ignited Steve to think about it. Because The Mill obviously can do these creatures in HD now.”

How much of that “other” plot can you reveal without being too spoilery?

“The Doctor is summoned to the Indian Space Agency and is told that there’s a craft which is about to collide with Earth. And so he rounds up a gang and goes to investigate what’s on there. Because there are some ‘very large’ life signals on there. And that’s really the main thrust of it to be honest.”

Indian Space Agency?

“Listen, you want bonkers? There whole thing with this is to think of as many ideas as possible and as much fun as possible. That was the big brief from Steven. It was ‘big, fun, loud romp’.”

What can you tell us about the human (or humanoid) characters?

“If you’re doing a story about a spaceship, it’s all about the people who are on there. With the Doctor, or already on there. And this had to be a fun episode because ‘Asylum Of The Daleks’ is quite a dark opening in some ways, so the second episode has to turn the fun up to 11. So it was really looking for as disparate a group of characters as possible.

“The great thing about the show is, you can do these collisions of characters that no other show in the world can do. So you can have Queen Nefertiti and Rory’s dad and a big game hunter. So really it was a chance to go, ‘What would be the most fun and crazy group of people who would bounce off each other?’ and bring it together. Also to make it feel epic in the character moments, because you have a scale of characters and character history that mirrored the scale of the movie idea.”

Why are these characters on a ship together?

“Before the titles the Doctor rounds up a gang. Some he is already with, some he thinks, ‘They’d be useful,’ some he sort of accidentally ends up with. You’ll see in the pre-titles how he gathers them. I think it’s safe to say that without spoiling too much.”

So it’s one of those classic Moffat-era montages?

“I think the really interesting thing Steven’s done is he’s really increased the pace of the plotting, and I really wanted to respond to that. What he has demonstrated – and we’ve all had to follow – is that you can come into a story very, very fast, and the audience will get it. It’s not like that all the time, though – ‘The Power Of Three’ is a very different pace – but the show can now hit the ground running.”

Back in the day, Russell T Davies used to tease episodes by giving us three random words from the scripts. What three would you choose?

“Oh my god, I should have prepared that! Hang on… I’ll open up the scripts. Um, Canada… dancers… Oooh, I can’t tell you that one… er, Golf…”

Doctor Who “Dinosaurs On A Spaceship” airs at 7.35pm on Saturday 8 September, on BBC1

Read our spoiler-free preview of “Dinosaurs On A Spaceship”

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