Sarah Dollard for – an exclusive interview!

Canal+ SerialCon is the oldest (and the only one) event devoted solely to TV shows in Poland. It’s a unique opportunity to talk about TV shows – the niche ones and the mainstream ones, science fiction and period dramas, crime stories and sitcoms – and to meet fellow fans and academics. And, also, guests. This year we had an opportunity to meet someone very special – Sarah Dollard visited Kraków to talk about screenwriting and creating – and being a fan. That was REALLY an amazing experience for us, especially since Sarah is one of our favourites creators of the show. It was a great pleasure to talk to her. One of our editors, Kate, moderated a Q&A session, and then we took Sarah to talk privately – here you can read our exclusive interview with her. Thanks, Sarah, every second of that meeting was a dream!

You can read the Polish translation here.

Katarzyna Nowacka: I think we’ll start with Face the Raven because it was so important that the fans are still discussing it even after all this time. It was also important for Clara and Peter Capaldi’s Doctor. We had that circulating opinion that Peter’s Doctor has been changing too much from episode to episode and then from series to series. He was a totally different character in the 8th series and then there was a big change in the 9th. Do you think he was developing as a character? Did you notice these changes while writing for two different series? Was that a good character development? Or maybe it was Steven Moffat who just changed his mind about who the Twelfth Doctor is?

Sarah Dollard: I think it developed. I think that when a new Doctor comes in, there’s such a strong attempt to draw a line behind the old Doctor and to do something new. And I think that they tried to do something so different between Eleven and Twelve that they probably needed a little bit of time to course correct and bring Twelve back to a more natural place, a place that worked best for the character and for Peter’s version of the character. And I think he just got more and more true to himself as the time went on. I think that, quite naturally, there’s a difference when the Doctor is with different companions. A companion brings out a different side of him. So he was sort of… in series 9, anyway… had become great friends and co-adventurers with Clara. Bringing Bill in was naturally a very different dynamics. He was more of an avuncular figure with Bill. So the way I like to think of it is… putting all sort of production and reality thoughts aside… I just sort of like to think of it as the Doctor finding himself in his skin again after the regeneration, as all Doctors do to some extent. It just so happened that with Twelve it took him longer to find himself.

Did you get the feeling that the scene you were writing in Face the Raven would shape who the Doctor would be from that moment on? Because it was such a huge emotional breakdown for the Doctor. I’ve got this feeling that the Doctor changes completely after losing Clara. Also in Heaven Sent and Hell Bent, those are very character-shaping episodes… Did you know this while writing Face the Raven, that after that the Twelfth Doctor will be someone else? At least a bit?

Yeah, for sure. Just like in life, when you lose someone close to you, that changes you as a person. The same has to go for the character. So of course Twelve’s grief would change him. And I think for me… as for the Twelve Doctor we’ve met in season 8, where he was quite quick to anger and he emotionally isolated himself from other people, all these things that characterized him when we first met him… I guess I found it interesting to think of that being the dark side of his character and wanted to make a virtue of that when he realised he’s going to lose Clara. So it’s really important for me what Clara said to him – that he wasn’t  allowed to turn into the War Doctor again, that he wasn’t allowed to go on a rampage, and he wasn’t allowed to let anger take over. That’s not how she wanted to be remembered. So I tried to make a virtue of it, tried to, like, hang a lantern on the problem, acknowledge it as a part of the character. It doesn’t need to be retconned, it’s an essential part of him, sort of his dark side.

Even thinking about it makes me emotional.

You’re probably hearing my voice shaking [laughs]. Just talking about it takes me back to what both Clara and the Doctor were feeling in these moments. I’m trying not to cry.

Yeah… I have this theory that if not for that moment, if the Doctor didn’t acknowledge this anger, he couldn’t become so kind that he is in the 10th series, I think he was pushing this away.

Yeah, he’s got to be strict for a while before he could be vulnerable. That works.

Maybe you’re tired of talking about it, but the deleted scenes from Face the Raven… There were so many great things that didn’t find their places in the final episode. I think the most important and interesting for me… apart from Jane Austen one, I would love to see this scene so much! And also Rigsy’s fiancée… Could you tell us more what was in these scenes? Why did you want them to be included in the episode?

I wanted to see more of Rigsy’s life, I wanted him to be even more well-rounded character than we’ve seen him previously. I also wanted to have a young male character that we could see being gentle and loving, with a family. But as essential as they might have been to Rigsy, they weren’t essential in the episode, so they were the ones to go first when it comes to the duration of the episode, but also the money. Every minute that you shoot costs money.

That’s also why I asked about novelisation because that would be great to see it. And also this kind of street, hidden street, I think it’s got a great potential. Do you think, if you write an episode in the future, would you like to come back to it? See what happened with the street?

Yeah, maybe? The idea of a trap street could be replicated and who knows what’s on the other trap streets, they weren’t taken over by me, so… Yeah, anything can happen. I mean, what’s on that specific trap street right now…

Were there any ideas about the trap street that didn’t make it through?

That’s quite a long time ago now… There was a lot of ideas that were brought up and then discarded… I probably dabbled a bit more into Anahson and their species, basically, and their story, their mythology. There was a scene, as I said during the Q&A, between Clara and Jorah [??]. One of my favourite things on Doctor Who is where the companions have alone time with the guest characters. But unfortunately, that wasn’t shot, I think they cut it the day before they were supposed to shoot it.

I’ve also got a question about both Face the Raven and Thin Ice. Did you get this feeling, when you were writing them, that there are some social problems you want to tackle in those? In case of the trap street there was this kind of refugee camp, in Thin Ice it’s a Dickensian world with starving children… Did they develop naturally or was that something you decided you wanted to talk about?

It definitely develops. I think that if you go in and try to make a story about something political… Sometimes it can work, I’m sure, but I don’t think I could do that in such way. For me everything starts with the character. And then, once you’ve got the kernel of an idea, you explore it in every way possible and in doing that, it’s usually been that the real world parallels occur to you. Or you realise you’re telling a story about alien refugees, and they’re alien refugees on Earth, you can’t tell a story about refugees without thinking about human refugees as well. And so one thing leads to another. But you always have to come back to the character, it can’t be only about the real world implications. With Thin Ice… it came out of just thinking realistically again about the character, from thinking what would be like for Bill to be in that time, what would she be experiencing on a day to day basis in that time. And then I was thinking quite practically about the fact that Doctor Who is 42-minutes episodes and anything that’s not absolutely vital to the plot gets cut. And having my experience on Face the Raven, I knew what it was like to lose things that I thought were really important for the story. And so what I wanted to do was to take Bill’s experience as a non-white woman in 1814 and make that in some way essential to the plot of the episode, so that meant tackling racism head on, so that it wasn’t something that could be get cut before we shoot it and cut when we edited. So that it was a natural part of the story.

Speaking about Bill. It was just her third episode, how much did you know about who Bill is supposed to be? Do you think that you shaped her character in a way? Defined who she is and who she is for the Doctor?

I definitely didn’t invent her, that was definitely Steven. He wrote these audition scenes which included the Dalek scene that revealed Bill to the world. So those scenes already existed when I started writing and then, as I was writing, I saw Pearl’s audition tapes, so yeah, I had some very good things to go on before I started writing her. But then it’s also true to say that I think it was the first complete script that was done, so…

So how does it look like when you’re writing your draft? There’s no writers’ room on Doctor Who, right? Every writer just writes their own drafts and brings them to the showrunner.


How much do you get from the showrunner to start with? For example, did you know how the episode should change the companion-Doctor relationship? How much do you know about who the Doctor is in this series, do you know what the main theme of the series would be?

With Face the Raven, once I was told where we would be in the series, I was told… I already had a villain, an antagonist character of the trap street who was the mayor of the trap street and so I was told „Let’s make that character Me”, the Maisie Williams’ character, and then I think I got a note, later on in the process, about where to leave the Doctor and Me relationship, and then I was told to leave the Doctor completely on his own at the end of my episode. So Clara would be gone and the Doctor would be in shock and grief-stricken and angry. So that was the point I had to get to. With Thin Ice it was… I was told: „This is Bill’s first historical episode so what your episode is going to be is this very inquisitive, very curious, very excitable, enthusiastic new companion for whom everything is still new”. She’s going to be discovering what it’s like to travel back in time and how it works. She doesn’t know what the rules are, and the Doctor would be… the kind of brief that I got was, he wouldn’t be a traditional teacher, he’s not really interested in teaching her rules, he’s interested in pretending he’s just there to have a good time when it’s really not why he’s there but that’s the image that he is prepared to project.

What are your expectations towards Thirteenth Doctor? Personally? How would you like the first female Doctor to behave? How do you imagine her? Should it be somehow underlined in the show that this is the female Doctor?

My answer is kind of two-fold. One would be that the Doctor themself, internally, will only change as much as the Doctor usually changes between incarnations and I really like what we’ve seen already, which is just that joyous enthusiasm that she had, that sort of almost child-like glee that was a little bit Ten, I suppose? That „Oh, brilliant!”, I really liked that, it seemed like such a great and interesting departure from Twelve. Even when he was excited about things, he would just kind of pretend that he was jaded and not into this. Having the Doctor who is just really, really into adventure seems fantastic and fun and I think that it shouldn’t be written in a „feminine” way as opposed to a „masculine” way. I think the Doctor has always been pretty good at thumbing his nose at what it means to be masculine anyway. So we’re coming from a good place to start.

The other side of this is the way the world reacts to the Doctor will completely change. Just like the way that Thin Ice would have gone down if it was a Clara episode, the way people would react to Clara in a Regency dress is very different to the way the world reacted to Bill in a Regency dress. Similarly people will react very differently to a woman running into a situation and taking charge than they would to Peter Capaldi running in and taking charge, that’s just a fact. Obviously the reactions would be different on Earth, too, and on other planets, or another time. So I hope that the Doctor internally doesn’t change too much but there is a realistic way in which the world responds to the Doctor being a woman. Does that make sense?

Of course! I thought about all these small things, for example I’m very enthusiastic about that idea that the Doctor can’t find a pocket in her jacket and is very confused about it. Or the Doctor still calling herself John Smith and being confused why it’s a problem… Can you imagine such small commentary that you could put in a script?

I guess the Doctor would notice people reacting differently to them and it could be a great fun to have the Doctor having fun with other people’s expectations, subverting people’s expectations. It would be really exciting to see a female companion react to that.

I could talk about Doctor Who and feminism for a couple of hours more… But it’s time to finish so the last question: how do you find Kraków and SerialCon?

Last time I was here I was 20 and it was the dead of winter, there was lots of snow and not much sunshine, so it’s really nice to see the city in a very different way. It changed much in 18 years but also the weather makes it completely different. So it’s lovely and the Con itself is nerdy and sweet, two of the best things that can be.

We’re sorry we can’t keep you here longer.

Yeah, but work calls…

Thank you very much for the talk!

That was really something! We’re very excited we had such opportunity. Sarah is the nicest! Thank you very much, Sarah, for the talk. We are looking forward to meeting you again!